By Joe McKeever
“And Jesus answered and spoke to them again in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king, who gave a wedding feast for his son….’” (Matthew 22:1-2).
Tony Campolo told a story–then developed it into a book–that has lodged itself in my brain and will not let me alone.
I’d like to do all I can to plant it in yours too.
Oddly enough, at the beginning of the book, Tony says he took an author’s license to shape the story just a tad. “It did not happen in just the way I am going to tell it to you.” I found that interesting. (Think I’ve met my soulmate! lol)
He says, “The names and the setting are made up and dialogue is a bit contrived, but the story is essentially what happened to me about four years ago.”
For reasons I cannot quite put my finger on, before recording the story here, I thought pastors would find his admission/confession interesting. Can I be forgiven for thinking most of us would have tweaked that story, then sent it on its way without ever telling anyone it did not happen exactly as we told it, but that we had prettied it up?
Tony Campolo–surely you know this man! If not, google him. He’s so worth knowing!–was speaking in Hawaii, and for a resident of the Philadelphia area as he is, that means he wakes up at 3 am ready for breakfast. So, he was out in Honolulu looking for a diner where he could get some bacon and eggs. (Note: I once bought him just such a breakfast in a diner in Black Mountain, NC, and we swapped stories for two hours. A delightful memory.)
What he finally found in that closed-up city was a greasy spoon restaurant where he was afraid to touch the menu lest some creepy crawly thing would be lurking inside. The fat guy behind the counter served him coffee and, when Tony ordered a donut, thinking it would be safe, the guy grabs it with his sticky fingers.
Suddenly, the door opens and in walks eight or night women who are clearly and visibly prostitutes. They are noisy and boisterous.
Since the diner was small, the women sat on stools on both sides of Tony, the Baptist preacher/sociology professor. He was increasingly uncomfortable and about to head for the exit, when one of the women made an announcement.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”
Her friend beside her said, “So, what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
The first girl said, “Come on! Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I don’t want anything from you.”
She continued in that vein for a bit. “I don’t want anything. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
That’s when Tony made a decision.
When the women left, he said to the guy behind the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Oh yeah,” he said.
“The one who was sitting next to me? Does she come in every night?”
“That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”
Tony said, “Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her–right here–tomorrow night?”
“That’s great!” the guy said. “I like it!”
He called his wife in from the back, and they began making plans. They would make the cake, and Tony would decorate the place.
At 2:30 the following morning, Tony arrived with crepe-paper decorations and a homemade sign that read, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”
Tony writes, “The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street because by 3:15, every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes….and me!”
Right on the dot, Agnes comes in with her friend. Everyone called out, “Happy birthday!”
“Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted….so stunned….so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her.”
When they brought out the cake, Agnes lost it.
She began crying.
Harry, the counter guy, said, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles!” After a bit, he finally blew them out himself. Then he handed her the knife and said, “Cut the cake, Agnes. We all want some cake.”
Agnes stared at that cake, then she said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I….I mean is it O.K. if I kind of….what I want to ask you is…is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while? If we don’t eat it right away?”
She said, “I want to take the cake home. I just live down the stret a couple of doors. I’ll be right back, honest!”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and walked out, carrying it, Tony says, like it was the Holy Grail.
When the door closed behind her, there was silence in the diner. Not knowing what else to do, Tony calls out, “What do you say we pray?”
It just felt like the thing to do, he writes. So, he prayed for Agnes. He asked God to save her. He prayed that her life would be changed and God would be good to her.
When he finished, Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher! What kind of church do you belong to?”
Tony says, “In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, ‘I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning!”
Harry was quiet for a long moment, then he said almost with a sneer, “There is no church like that! But if there was, I’d join it in a heartbeat!”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Tony writes.
Then he adds, “That’s the kind of church Jesus came to create! I don’t know where we got the other one that’s so prim and proper. But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with whores and with all kinds of left-out people. The publicans and ‘sinners’ loved Him because He partied with them. The lepers of society found in Him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious could not relate to what He was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to HIm with excitement.”
At the end of that chapter, Tony Campolo says, “Our Jesus was and is the Lord of the party.”
I’m sitting here at the breakfast table typing this and wondering if any of our readers will find that offensive. I certainly hope so. I submit for your consideration the following scriptures….
–”But the father said to the servants, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, and bring the fattened calf, and kill it. Let us eat and be merry.’” (Luke 15:22-23) And later, “But we had to be merry and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live; was lost and has been found” (15:32).
–”I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7,10).
–”He said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast. And those servants…gathered together all they found, both evil and good, and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests” (Matthew 22:8ff.).
–”But He said to them, ‘A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many…’.” (Luke 14:16) And this, “But when you give a reception (banquet), invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed…. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:13-14).
–”And He said to me, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” (Revelation 19:9)
Anyone having a problem with the concept that “the Kingdom of God is a party” needs to know his argument is not with Tony or Joe, but with Jesus.
(The book “The Kingdom of God is a Party,” is published by Word in 1990, and can be bought for a few cents plus P & H at amazon.com or my favorite, alibris.com. In the small volume–it’s only 150 pages, you can read it in an hour–Tony answers the objections to this concept and calls for the church to find “God’s radical plan for His family.”)
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.