The story behind the picture is this. Around 1903, the people of Waterloo, Iowa were struggling with some fairly regular flooding from the Dry Run Creek. So they engineered and began construction on a massive storm sewer – over 3,000 feet long, 12 feet high, and 12 feet wide – to catch the runoff from heavy rains. When the project was complete the people decided to celebrate this great achievement at their annual League of Iowa Municipalities banquet. And what better way to celebrate that which would make life easier for the people than to have the banquet right there in the sewer.
The New York Times reported the event: Dateline, October 14, 1903. “The city officials and business men of Waterloo this evening gave a banquet to the League of Iowa Municipalities in the ‘Dry Run Sewer’ … A section of the sewer 400 feet in length was set apart for the banquet. A long table was spread to accommodate 350 persons.”
They also report that 2 mayors and the Attorney General of Iowa were among the speakers. All of this is under the headline “Banquet Given in a Sewer” (New York Times). This picture is from a postcard circa 1915 that commemorates the event (sewerhistory.org).
I get what they were going for, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be there. I would love to see a picture of all of those gentlemen and ladies in their 1900s formal attire enjoying a meal there in the sewer. There is something about the incongruity of the beautiful banquet table with the formal silverware, the napkins neatly folded, the filled wine glasses, and the decorations on the table all set up in a storm sewer that fascinates me. Somehow I think this is a Kingdom of God image.
Jesus known for celebrating
One of the things for which Jesus was fairly well known, or maybe infamous for in his day, was enjoying a good party. In fact, there is this verse we don’t often preach on, found in both Matthew and Luke, where Jesus responds to the accusation of the religious elite that he is a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). How did he gain that reputation? By attending banquets and dinner parties fairly regularly.
His ministry begins, according the Gospel of John, with his first miracle. At a wedding banquet, Jesus turns water into wine. Running out of wine was a sign that the party was over. By making more wing, Jesus keeps the party going. A symbol of his ministry. John, and the rest of the gospels, tell us that Jesus; ministry ended with celebratory meal with his disciples right before the series of events that led to the cross. He starts at a party, ends at a party, and mixed in throughout his ministry in between, there is mention after mention of Jesus eating. Sometimes at dinner with a scribe or Pharisee; sometimes with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; sometimes at the house of a tax collector like Zacchaeus or Matthew; sometimes out on the field with 500 friends and a miraculous amount of fish and bread.
It seems that just about everywhere Jesus went, he was ready to celebrate.
Why? Because he knew something no one else did. Jesus knew and proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God has come near.”
You may remember from Pastor Bob’s sermon on “The Perfect Storm” a couple of weeks ago, that the Jewish people were looking for the return of God to Jerusalem to rule, but they differed on how they thought that would happen and how they would participate in it. The sect called the Pharisees believed that God would come back when God’s people paid strict adherence to God’s law. Jesus bumps up against them often. They think Jesus is lax with the law, and is therefore impeding the return of God. Another group, called the Sadducees were expecting their alliance with Rome to pave the way for God’s return. By currying favor and gaining some power, they believed they were living God’s way for God’s people by keeping the Temple fully Jewish and not allowing it to be corrupted by the gods of the Roman Empire, as other empires had done previously. The Zealots took quite the opposite approach. They believed that God would come back to re-inhabit the Temple and rule the world when they were able to drive the Romans out of Jerusalem and come out from under the occupation. Finally, there were the Essenes who felt the Temple was corrupt and when God returned he would judge the Temple and its leaders. So they went out to live in the caves of the Dead Sea, to get away from it all and live “purely.” They are the authors of what we now know as the “Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Jesus comes with a completely different message. He is not talking about what needs to be done in order for God to return. Rather, Jesus announces right at the outset of his public ministry that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 10:9 – and others). God is already here, and already king. There is no denying that this is central to Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has come to announce that people no longer have to wait for God to come as king in Jerusalem and by extension to the rest of the world. Instead, Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is here now and that is cause for celebration.
Biblical image of the Kingdom of God
I want to reiterate something that Bob introduced over the last several weeks about what Jesus means by the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven (those two phrases are synonymous), as Jesus talked about it, is not a place out there somewhere for us to attain later. In fact, it is not “out there” at all. Jesus always talked about the Kingdom of God as a present reality, but one that we do not always see.
One representation of this phenomenon would be two intersecting circles. One of those circles represents this world. This is “our space” – the world which we experience through our five senses; it is where we live, work, and play every day. The other circle represents the Kingdom of God. Very simply, if the other circle is our space this is “God space” – the place where God dwells fully.
For the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the place where the two circles intersect would be the Temple – where God’s space and our space meet. In other words, the closest one could get to being in the very presence of God was to enter in to Temple.
For me, this two-dimensional drawing is limiting. I would rather it be three-dimensional – like a sphere within a sphere. One sphere representing God space, and the other our space. When we do that, rather than only a single point of intersection, there can be many intersecting points at any time.
You have probably experienced this. When you go on that mission trip, or that retreat, or meet with that friend, or come to worship, and you know that you are in the presence of God – that is one of those intersecting points. In other words, it is not as though the Spirit of God has come to you from someplace else, but that you have spent a moment in God’s space.
The biblical image of this for me is the story of Jacob’s ladder, from which we get the well-known song. In Genesis 28 we read of Jacob lying down to sleep during a journey. While he is there, he has a vision where he sees a ladder between this world and the next with angels ascending and descending, a sign that God is present in the world constantly. When Jacob awakes from this dream he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). Jacob had spent time in that in-between place.
Kingdom of God Parables of Matthew 13
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was proclaiming much the same thing. The kingdom of God has come near, he said. The problem seems to be that we have trouble seeing it.
Take a look with me at the series of parables told in Matthew 13. Turn there, skipping down to verse 31. Listen to this quick succession of parables.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it becomes the greatest of shrubs.”
Next one: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…mixed in with three measures of flour.”
Next one, down in verse 44: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.”
Next one, verse 45: “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Next one, verse 47: “the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
There is a pattern that emerges here – a seed that is planted, yeast mixed in dough, treasure hidden in a field, a pearl that was difficult to find, and fish just below the surface. There is this sense that the kingdom of God is right here, but yet somehow just out of reach.
Jesus is pointing out that if only we had, in another expression he liked to use, “ears to hear” and eyes to see, we would begin to notice the kingdom of God all around us, just waiting to break through. Jesus has come to announce that the kingdom of God is here – not out there somewhere, and that he is the king of that kingdom.
We are going to talk much more about that next week, when we talk about Jesus and the Temple. For now, just try to keep that in mind as we continue to talk about Jesus’ parables and parties. Jesus is announcing and celebrating that the kingdom of God has come near – it is right here, right now!
Keep that in mind as we begin to talk about a couple of Jesus’s parables.
What is a parable? N. T. Wright reminds us that Jesus’ parables “were not, as children are sometimes taught in Sunday school, ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings,’ … Some, indeed, are [kingdom of God] stories…with decidedly earthly meanings.” Meaning that these are not stories meant to teach us about something about the world we hope to inhabit one day, but are instead stories about that other realm, the God space, that should change the way we live here in our space.
A parable about a banquet – Luke 14
Which leads us to the parable we read this morning, skipping over to Luke 14. If you still have your Bible out, go toward the back of the Bible a few pages, past Mark to Luke 14. If start back up at verse one we get the setting for this parable:
One one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. (Luke 14:1)
Jesus is at dinner with a “leader of the Pharisees.” In the next section he heals someone, and then he makes a comment about humility. Then we come to verse 15 which Michelle/Ruth read for us earlier. So in the midst of what appears to be a dinner party with a Pharisee, Jesus tells a story about a dinner party. The story is told in response to a guest’s comment about eating bread in the Kingdom of God.
In the parable, Jesus revisits the Mission of God that Bob talked about last week. Remember that was to (1) bring good news to the poor, (2) proclaim release to the captives, (3) give recovery of sight to the blind, and (4) to release the oppressed and declare the year of Jubilee when everything is to be forgiven. The kingdom of God casts a much wider net than the people wanted to believe. They wanted to keep God for themselves, and not the others whom they believed were not worthy to be called the children of God.
At this kingdom of God party Jesus describes, the so-called worthy people all have better things to do. Property to inspect, oxen to test drive, a new relationship that is pulling them away. So the host asks that “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” be invited instead. Those who thought they deserved a place at the table are then shut out, because eventually the table is filled. The kingdom of God is for everyone!
No doubt Jesus’ host, a leader of the Pharisees, must have gotten the point of the parable. As a Pharisees he was one that was concerned about other things. And sure enough, Jesus’ story seems to end the dinner party. The next verse has Jesus back on the road, “Now large crowds were traveling with him.”
Soon after leaving the Pharisee’s house, this parable begins to come to life. We read that Jesus has “tax collectors and sinners” coming near to him. This gets some Pharisees grumbling about his choice of dinner guests – the impurity of it all. In response to this accusation, Jesus tells three more stories. The first is about a lost sheep. The shepherd leaves to find the lost one, and when he finds it – he throws a party. The second is about a woman who lost a coin and searches her house and when she finds it – she throws a party. The third is about a son who leaves home with his inheritance. Eventually he comes home, and when he does – his father throws a party.
This party image is not just something that Jesus talked about in his parables. This is a parable he lived. Time and again we find him celebrating with all the “wrong” people. When Matthew, a former tax collector, tells the story of his own call to discipleship, he includes the dinner party that he threw that night with Jesus and his former friends, “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9). We could go on and on with example after example.
The point is that one of the centerpieces of Jesus ministry was the announcement that the kingdom of God was here now, and it was to be celebrated.
This is not a celebration that denies the difficulties of life. It is a celebration that brings meaning within the difficulties. The people Jesus is calling to celebrate are living a difficult life. They are not free, many are poor, and there is little hope that is going to change. The message of the banquet is that those who have been cast out, who do not belong, who are told they are unfit, who have no power over their situation, and appear to have little hope for the future in this realm – there is a place for them at the table of the Kingdom of God. The sad part is that there are so many that miss the celebration because, in their words, they have better things to do.
Often in Jesus‘ parables about banquets and parties, and the stories that the Gospel writes tell about the parties Jesus lived, we read about those who refuse to celebrate. The father in the prodigal son story begs the older brother to join the feast, but that son can’t bring himself to celebrate. In the story of Matthew’s dinner party upon becoming a follower of Jesus, we are told that there are Pharisees and scribes on the outside looking in. In this morning’s story we hear about those who very politely turn down the invitation to the banquet because they have other things – land, oxen, marriage – that keeps them from joining. Today I wonder how many stay away from the kingdom of God because they don’t realize that it is supposed to be a party.
Christians in the culture
Have you ever noticed how the culture views Christians? Back in my youth, one of the most recognized Christian characters was “the church lady,” Dana Carvey’s character from Saturday Night Live. She hosted a little show called “Church Chat,” where her primary activity was pointing out where other people were not living the proper Christian life. She took great pride in telling them what they were doing wrong.
Several years later it became Ned Flanders, neighbor of the Simpsons, and his pastor Steven Lovejoy. Two of the most boring, joyless characters ever on television. I don’t know that Rev. Lovejoy has ever smiled on an episode of The Simpsons.
Or how about more recently, and more real, someone like Harold Camping. In the media for his predictions of doom and gloom about the end of the world. So many preachers, encouraging so many Christians to simply shake their heads over the state of the world and thank God they will be evacuated before it gets worse.
Do we think it was much better in Jesus’ day? Many long to go back to a better, simpler time. Oh, if only the world were like it were back in the days of Jesus. Really? The people Jesus preached to were living in a terrible time. They were persecuted and oppressed. They were doing things that had to grieve the heart of God – treating women poorly, casting people out for their disease, telling people they were unfit for the love of God. Yet Jesus didn’t walk around the streets of Galilee all doom and gloom just shaking his head. Instead, he said, “Let’s eat.”
From confrontation to invitation
When I was in Loveland last week I was talking with a young woman, a youth minister, who had recently graduated from college and was serving a church in a different college town. She had such a heart for the college students, and was grieved by what she saw as animosity toward the church. Apparently she witnessed a rally where some students were actively campaigning against the existence of god, and that Christianity was wrong, and things like that. She talked about how there was so much darkness on the campus and very little light. She was concerned for the students who were away from home and who might get sucked into this type of thinking because they were not connected to church and thereby susceptible to this type of reasoning.
By the way, I think this is happening on many campuses across the country. During that time of life it is easy to believe that more knowledge will help us evolve to solve our own problems, and we don’t really need a god to do that. That is what is called humanism.
She said something like, “I just don’t know what to do. I want to go up to those students and confront them, and tell them that they are wrong, and get them to stop. I want to convince them that Jesus is the way.” In a Holy Spirit moment I said something like, “I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I think it might be more effective if you set up an alternative. Those students that are protesting, don’t really know what the church is all about. Don’t fight them, and feed their perceptions. Go show them what the church really is.” Within seconds, she was brainstorming ways to do that. Setting up a coffeehouse in an abandon spot in the middle of campus, gathering people together for study, prayer, and fun. She went from wanting to fight, to trying to figure out ways to invite people to the party.
That sure sounds a lot more like the way Jesus would operate. Sure he called people out and challenged their difficult behavior, because all of that business was keeping them from celebration. Jesus said, you think property, work, and marriage are great – I’ve got something even better for you.
Dry Run Sewer Banquet
Which brings me back to Waterloo, Iowa, 1903. A group of townspeople set up a banquet in a huge storm sewer. That is an awfully odd place to celebrate. The banquet doesn’t belong there. It belongs in a grand hall, with chandeliers and a dance floor. A sewer is no place to celebrate. We should leave the sewer and wait until we get to a beautiful place far away.
But then again, what better place for a party? Let’s get together right there in the presence of that which is going to save our town from future floods, that is going to improve our lives and change the way we live. Why can’t a giant storm drain that brings peace to a community be a place to celebrate? As ordinary as it appears, there is something very special about this place that is worth celebrating.
Jesus came proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. This, he said, was something to celebrate. Right here. Right now.
The table is ready! Come! Come join in the kingdom party!
“Banquet Given In a Sewer.” The New York Times. [New York, New York] 15 Oct. 1903. Web. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0C17FB34591B728DDDAC0994D8415B838CF1D3.
“Sewers in our Culture” at SewerHistory.org. Accessed at http://www.sewerhistory.org/grfx/misc/cultur1.htm on January 26, 2012.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.