Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Gospel of Unjust Feasts
(a homily for St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church)

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry at UW-Madison. It is a joy to be with you this morning and, being with you, to be among friends. I was reminded of our special friendship walking up the hill from the parking lot this morning and passing the altar that stands in that beautiful, shaded spot under the trees; that altar, around which generations of SFH students - including many of you - worshiped in years past, now a gift and sign of our friendship in Christ. And without having to go back generations, I have my own fond memories of you from my first year as chaplain: St. Dunstan’s brought several (sinfully) delicious meals to share with our students on Sunday evenings; additionally, it was a great pleasure to lead your Advent Quiet Day, with folks from this community and SFH coming together in simplicity and prayer. It is good to be with friends.

In the gospel last week, the disciples screwed up the courage to ask Jesus how they should pray. Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer and then encouraged his disciples to be bold, fearless, even obnoxious: pounding on the door in the middle of the night, and never to give up. So compelling is the brazen perseverance commended in the story it’s easy to miss what might be considered a minor detail, namely, the occasion for the one friend’s knocking. 

“Suppose one of you has a friend,” Jesus says, “and you go to him at midnight and say to him -” and already you and I are consumed by the central suspense: the waking up of the friend. But notice what comes next: “you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” So let’s get this straight: the man is knocking at the the middle of the throw a party for a friend. He’s waking up his neighbor for a midnight snack.

Now, suppose for just a moment that this is not a minor detail, but a central detail or - better - a recurring theme of Luke’s gospel: the celebration meal that just can’t wait. All throughout Luke’s gospel, examples of the party that must be thrown, must risk accusations of impropriety, irresponsibility, even injustice: generosity given lavishly especially to those who don’t deserve it. Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; to make the case for Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts, we need considerably more evidence; we need to think of some other examples. I bet you can. Exhibit A: the feast the father throws for the prodigal son. The fatted calf and all the rest. The eldest son stewing in the background. Exhibit B: how about Jesus’ inviting himself over to a corrupt tax collector’s house for dinner? Yes, bring Zacchaeus to the stand. The feeding of the five thousand on the hillside is not necessarily unjust, but it is certainly unexpected - and remarkable. Then there is the parable of that great dinner - the marvelous feast - where the host invites the A-list celebrities, but all of them say ‘no’! They’ll all at home that night clipping toe nails or something. Maybe the Packers were playing. So the host orders his slaves to go out to the streets, to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Finally, the last supper, shared with those who would betray and deny our Lord, and Easter meal shared in Emmaus, the risen Lord eating with friends who won’t even recognize him until he’s vanished from their sight. 

Plenty to go on; but largely circumstantial evidence to this point. The case for Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts still needs, I think, character witnesses that can pin the claim squarely on Jesus. We will need, for example, to bring to the stand the Pharisees who, in Luke’s 5th chapter, complain that Jesus’ disciples eat and drink to much - or at least appear to eat and drink far more than they fast and pray. (Maybe you can relate.) These Pharisees would be happy to remind you that Jesus’ answer to their complaint was to call himself the bridegroom at a party occasioned by his presence. “You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” he asks.

Jesus’ self-referential answer might also call to mind for you his first sermon at that synagogue in Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the scripture he claimed to be fulfilling - do you remember it? 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

“The year of the Lord’s favor” are especially special words here. They are words familiar term to Jewish ears, referring to the Jubilee year, and it’s the biggest feast, the biggest party, of them all. It happened after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - so, once, maybe twice, in a lifetime: the unforgettable party in which debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and property returned to original owners. Small wonder “Jubilee” translates roughly, “Shout for joy!” It named relief for the poor, the oppressed, for all who had played the game and lost. And this party of parties Jesus claimed to fulfill by his presence. So Jesus is the living Jubilee - the one in whom forgiveness, abundance, and mercy reside, and this with tangible implications for the lives of those whom he calls. 

Which brings us to this morning’s gospel. Only having established Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts, with Jesus at the center - Jesus as the feast - does this parable about a successful man whose wealth has outgrown his barns stand out, I think, as much as it is meant to. The followers of Jesus all throughout Luke’s gospel, following Jesus’ lead, are feasting with unexpected friends. But this man is neither feasting in the moment nor surrounded by any friends. His feast is bread not made - but stored in barns - and friends not met - perhaps he fears them, is threatened by them, imagines his insulation as a kind of safety from them. The man’s isolation takes on the character of comic tragedy when he attempts a conversation with the only one he’s kept close by - his own soul. “I said to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods...’” 

The barn builder’s isolation is named again by the question God gives the man at the end: “These things that you’ve prepared, whose will they be?” Of course, there is no one, but also, it’s a question of inheritance. And in the context of this party-in-progress gospel - the great Jubilee - we are reminded that inheritance - property rights handed down through generations - is fundamentally in some tension with the Jubilee, in which property rights are reset, and which Jesus has come to announce. Indeed, when we think back to the story of the prodigal son - another inheritance story - we remember the truth that even the heirs of inheritance end up requiring grace of the Jubilee kind. So the barn builder’s sin, greed - as St. Paul reminds us - is really idolatry, because it prefers another reign to that of God’s; the barn builder’s hope lies in the table not spread, the invitation not made, and forgiveness neither offered nor received. 

By contrast, Jesus wonderfully describes God’s reign elsewhere as a dishonest manager who, after being told that he will lose his position, summons his master’s debtors and cuts their debts without checking first with the boss. Jesus ends the parable exhorting his disciples to go and do likewise. Quote: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

The efforts of the barn builder, emphatically, will not be eternal, we’re told. But the one who makes friends even with the boss’ money, will be welcomed into eternal homes. There’s that theme again, echoes of the feast: the gifts of God used recklessly in friendship with each other; God announcing a feast that lasts.

What does this mean? How do we do this, we who are trained to be responsible, strategic, self-preserving, self-promoting, hard-working, American barn builders? I don’t know. But try this: once a year, or more if you are brave, take time to think of the most reasonable, logical, strategic, and self-promoting plan of action for a given situation in your life. Then do the opposite. The exact opposite. Not partly - all the way. We need practice in mimicking the decidedly not reasonable and stringless grace of God.

In a few moments, we will baptize dear Edith into the household of God. Talk about grace. How will this change her? Will she glow? Will she hover? Will she say the family’s meal time prayers henceforth and with perfect eloquence? No. The only visible change we will see is the feast on her tongue - Christ on her lips. Holy Communion. She will come to the table and eat. And she will not eat this feast alone. Already, you are welcoming her as fellow friends at the feast, this feast made for sharing. And the feast is for now. Let God take care of your tomorrow, says Jesus. Trust God’s promise to remember you, always. And, embracing your baptism, live richly toward each other.


Me, with Kate, Mark, and their dear daughter Edith.


  1. I know you're on vacation, I kind of hope you don't answer this. Not now, anyway. But: I'm looking at the propers for Sept 8, with this sermon in my mind, & pondering Jesus' parables in Luke 14:25-33. It sounds on the surface like he's praising the prudence of the person who decides not to build a tower because he doesn't have enough money. But maybe we read approval there because that's what we expect, that's the wisdom of the world. What he actually says, as the punch line for those two little parables about prudence, is: Give everything away and follow me. That's not prudence. Is he disparaging the prudence that makes someone hesitate to build, or hesitate to engage a challenge, because they fear their resources aren't sufficient? It's a heck of a text for a church preparing for a pledge drive, either way, but it sure preaches differently if it's in praise of prudence or in dismissal thereof. :-)

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