Our Faith We Sing: Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
June 5, 2016
Luke 14:16-25: 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 apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 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.” ’
Recently, a story has been passing around the internet. Garrison Kiellor purportedly wrote it about, “Those People Called Methodists.” In full disclosure, I can’t find where he actually penned it and found the same piece with “Lutherans” instead of Methodists! Nonetheless, it does sound like, well, like us! The piece says, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese.”
But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they'd smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!
“Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage.
It's natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. They are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you're singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it's an emotionally fulfilling moment. By joining in harmony, they somehow promise that they will not forsake each other.”
The writing then finishes with a number of “one-liners.” I so appreciate what it conveys about our “singing together “somehow promising that we will not forsake each other.
I like this, because in a sense, that’s what John and Charles Wesley intended for hymns to do for us: to spiritually transform us, to teach us and to unite us as we sing praises to God. Charles wrote over 6000 hymns. Sometime look in the composer index in the back of your hymnal (preferably not during the sermon) and see the hymns he wrote. You’ll likely be amazed finding some of them are classics sung by all denominations.
The hymns of the Wesley’s, composed by Charles and edited by John, had as one of their highest purposes broadly sharing the Methodist way of life and belief.
Today, we begin a series of sermons under the heading, “Our Faith We Sing.” In all four services, the contemporary services included, we’ll have a focus hymn and the scripture passage that contains the Methodist emphasis the hymn seeks to teach us.
The first hymn we’re considering in our sermon series is, “Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast.” The first stanza has some saliently Methodist thought. Open your hymnbooks again, if you’d like, to page 616. Let’s focus on the words more deeply than we usually do. “Come, Sinners to the gospel feast” – come sinners, not perfect people, not saints, but sinners. Doesn’t this forthrightly relate to the graceful invitation of Christ as well as inform us about the nature of humankind? We Methodists are realistic about humanity. And at the same time we believe in a loving, inviting, accepting Christ. In contrast, some traditions seem to give the message that Jesus is really out to “get you” and you’re invited if you’re perfect, righteous and saintly enough. Also, it would seem they’re talking about being invited to their congregation and their communion table as well, if you’re good enough! And yet, the Methodist message here is that all of us are sinners and all are invited, to church and communion, not because we deserve it but just the opposite, because we are sinners in need it!
Then the hymn continues, let me emphasize a few words, “let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all human kind.”
Did you catch it? The emphasis of the people called Methodists? The faith we sing is that we believe that Christ’s action on the cross is effective for all who will accept it; the invitation of Christ is to all humanity!
Now, this may sound perfectly natural to you, but there are many fine Christians, from a different perspective, who believe very deeply that the work of Christ on the cross is only effective for the salvation of a predestined, select, elect group–not everyone. If you are in this select/elect group, nothing will take you off the path of salvation. If you are not in this group, nothing you say or do will grant you salvation.
My sense is, Jesus’ teaching in our passage today supports our Wesleyan perspective. In our story, Jesus tells of a man who was throwing a banquet. In the culture of those days, social life was all about honor. A banquet host would invite and even seat the people at the feast with sense of hierarchy and honor. The status of the people who came would grant honor to the host throughout the village; to not come to the feast was the ultimate in dishonor and disrespect toward the host. People would have been invited well in advance and then on the evening of the feast servants would be sent out to tell the guests, the time had arrived, come to the feast. Because servants were sent to them, we know that the “excuse making people” had accepted the invitation. And we can see how flimsy their excuses were, can’t we? I mean think of it! No one would buy property without first inspecting it; but suddenly on the evening of the banquet one guests decides he needs to do just that, just then. Another guest has made, what was in those days, a massive purchase of oxen, and absurdly did so sight unseen; but again on the night of the banquet he suddenly decides he must see them. And then, the third guest offers a real doozy! This fellow, it seems, accepted an invitation to the feast but “Oh my goodness, I just remembered the feast is happing right at my mid-eastern, multi-day wedding festivities. I’m sorry, when I accepted the invitation, I just forgot about my own wedding date!” Now, sometimes, in studying this passage, we tend to focus on these excuses; there’s something to be learned in them because the excuses reflect Jesus call for total commitment to following him by not letting commerce and domestic issues side track us from such. But there’s more here.
You know the flow of the story of the rest of the story. This host has the banquet ready, today and sends the servants out to the towns and hedges, where the poor, dispossessed and rejected people were and invites them to come to the banquet. The host is so determined to fill the banquet; the servants are sent out twice; the second time having to compel the dispossessed to come. (I liken this to a White House butler having to convince a homeless person they are suddenly invited into a state dinner at the White House).
So here’s the story’s two main points: the host is prepared and determined to fill the table and second: the invitation is extended to all who can be found.
And this is the same as Christ’s invitation to sinners to come to the Good News feast! It is extended to all, everyone, not just an elect, select comparative few. And more this passage informs the servants called Methodists what we are to be about; we are to invite all! Now, those we invite might not respond to our invitation; they might respond to the next one though. And because God never gives up on anybody, neither should we. It’s an immense task we Methodist servants have, but it’s the faith we sing and live. And what a feast results! The very feast of Christ, with all kinds of people mind you! So, this morning, come sinners to the gospel feast, of communion and let us leave as invitation bearers, to the divine banquet of Christ.
Be sure and return next week, as our hymn is, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” which has the line “changed from glory into glory.” Charles took this directly from the Bible and we’ll be looking at how God grows us as Christians. And James Kjorlaug will be preaching on his last Sunday at Christ Church.
Share with your group your favorite hymn and why…
Share with your group what Christ’s invitation to all means to you…
Share with your group how you intend to invite this week…