Saturday, May 4, 2019

“Joining the Party” - March 31, 2019

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

Life is chock-full of invitations.  Invitations of all sorts.  As I mentally scan the past week, a lot of different invitations came my way.  There was an invitation to a preaching conference and to an annual meeting.  There were invitations to make contributions to various charitable and educational institutions.  And we keep getting invitations in the mail for investment and retirement planning seminars. 

Of course, there were all kinds of invitations that came through e-mail.  “Save 35% on Appliance Top Deals during the Spring Savings Event.”   ‘Vote for the Best of Story County 2019.”  “Rent a Car from $4/Day.”  “Learn the Tax Benefits of Incorporating in Nevada.”  And on and on it goes.  How did we ever get by without e-mail?

And then, there are those more personal invitations we receive: to go to lunch or a ballgame or a movie or to play cards with friends.  Maybe there is an invitation to go to prom.

Clearly, all invitations are not the same.  Responding to an invitation takes some discernment.  Incorporating in Nevada was an easy invitation to decline.  But many of the invitations that come our way are a bit more difficult.     

In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells the parable of a king whose son was being married.  Invitations went out for the gala event of the year: a royal wedding.  Invitations went to the A-list: the rich and famous, jet-setters, beautiful people, important people, the kind of people who deserved to be at a royal wedding.   

But surprisingly - shockingly, really - the invited guests could not be bothered.  They are dismissive of the king and the invitation.  And when the invitation was issued a second time, it goes beyond indifference to the invitation.  Some of the invited guests even killed the messengers.

This does not make the king happy, of course, and so he sends his army to destroy the murderers and burn their city to the ground.

Another invitation is issued.  This time not to the rich and famous, but to everyone else.  Invitations are sent to everyday people.  Invitations are sent to the down and out, to the have-nots and has-beens and ne’er-do-wells.  Everybody is invited, both the good and the bad.

Now, as stories go, this is completely ridiculous.  It is extreme.  Luke tells this same story, and it is a much nicer story, lacking the extreme violence.  The invitees don’t show up and so everybody is then invited.  That is a better story – a more reasonable story.  But not here.  Well, this is what happens when you decide to work your way through a gospel – you not only get the nice, pleasant passages, you get the difficult parts too.

In the first place, nobody would refuse a royal invitation.  When William and Kate were married, when Harry and Meghan were married, everybody wanted to be there.  Not only did the invited guests attend, millions of people watched on TV around the world.  Thousands and thousands of people lined the streets just hoping for a glimpse of the couple and cheered as their car passed by.

Jesus’ story is completely over the top.  It is disturbing.  But we have to admit, it does grab our attention. 

This story can be seen as a picture of salvation history: the prophets proclaimed God’s invitation and were ignored and killed, and finally everyone is invited to the party, Gentiles included.  If you think of it in this way, it is still a tough parable, and we still don’t necessarily like it, but that helps a little, maybe.  But I’m not sure that was what Jesus intended with the story.

What can’t be overstated here is the importance of the wedding feast – of the banquet.  This was a time in which many people did not have enough to eat.  This was a time in which there might be a drought every few years, and just surviving could be a struggle.  And so a feast, a banquet, was a great image and a very appealing image. 

This image of a great feast did not originate with Jesus.  Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”  Scripture is full of festive meals, and the kingdom as a great banquet is found throughout scripture.  There is the Passover meal and the table prepared in the presence of enemies in Psalm 23. 

In Jesus’ own life, there are so many references to Jesus eating and drinking with sinners.  There is the Last Supper with his disciples and the breakfast by the sea after his resurrection.  And then there is the final wrap-up of the Bible, the marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19 – and that’s just to name a few.

There is a persistent theme of the kingdom of God as a great feast, a big party.  I wonder: how often do we think of the church in this way?  Those great theologians of my college years, The Talking Heads, said, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around,” and that is the way we generally think of the church.  This is serious business.  A lot of things may come to mind when we hear the word “church,” but “party” is generally not one of them.   

But Jesus says that the Kingdom of God – God’s way, God’s movement - is like a party.  It’s not the first time Jesus has identified with parties.  In fact, when you read the gospels, it seems that Jesus is either at a party, like the wedding in Cana where he turns water into wine or a dinner party in someone’s home; or he is giving advice on party-giving, saying don’t just invite people who can afford to repay you, invite those who can’t return the favor; or he is telling a story about a party, like the prodigal son and the father who throws a big party upon his son’s return.

By the time of Jesus, the image of the Messianic Banquet had become a symbol of salvation.  The Essenes were a group of devout people looking for the Messiah.  They believed that the banquet would be connected with the Messiah’s coming, but they believed that invitations would be offered only to those who were wise, intelligent and perfect.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were very different from the Essenes, but they agreed that only a limited pool of people were acceptable before God.  There was a sharp line drawn between those who were in and those who were out.  If you had money and came from the right family and kept the law, you were in.  If you had a disease or were in the wrong line of work, or were of the wrong ethnic heritage, you were out.  There were very particular ideas about who would and who would not be allowed into the banquet.

Jesus’ parable challenges those rules.  Jesus’ parable, in fact, throws out those rules.  The invitation is not simply for the few, it is for everybody.  It is almost scandalous: the text says that all were invited, the good as well as the bad.  Everybody.  After the A-list refuses, everyone else accepts.  Everybody comes, and the place is just packed for the great wedding feast.

This is a parable of the wonderful, expansive, inclusive grace of God.  Everyone is invited.  Everyone is welcome.  You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t even have to be “good.”  You are invited.  Our choir will be singing – next week, as it turns out – an anthem called “A Place at the Table.”
For everyone born, a place at the table, for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing, for everyone born, a star overhead...

It’s that image of the Table, the feast, to which we are all invited. 

The invitations have been sent.  They have been issued to everyone.  The only choice for us to make is whether we accept or refuse the invitation.

But the thing is, there is more than one way to refuse an invitation.  After all of the drama, after killing the messengers and sending the army after the perpetrators, we finally have this nice story about everybody being welcome at God’s feast.  But then there is this guy who seems to accept the invitation.  I mean, he is there, he arrives at the party.  But as it turns out, he is a party pooper.  He refuses to celebrate.  We have all seen it, and maybe we have all done it.  We go along out of obligation or guilt or maybe out of boredom, but we really don’t want to be there.  We keep looking at our watch.  We don’t really join the party.

There guy accepts the invitation, but he is not wearing wedding clothes.  The result seems just a wee bit harsh: he is cast into the outer darkness.  Kind of a bummer don’t you think?  It seems like a bit of an overreaction on the king’s part.  What’s the big deal with clothes anyway?  If the king’s servants were just inviting anybody they could find from off the street, you can’t expect them to be dressed for a wedding.

It seems like some information is missing here.  Did the people on the street run home and put on nice clothes?  What if they didn’t have any fancy clothes to wear?  Some commentators have suggested that hosts of such a wedding provided dressy robes to those who did not have any, but that is not entirely clear and there is some dispute about that.

Well, this is not exactly a logical story.  It is instead told to convey a point. 

Somebody said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  I’ve always liked that quote.  And there is a lot of truth there.  There is something to be said for simply being there.  But the reality is, it takes more than just showing up.

Just “showing up” at class might make you a student, but it is not going to write your paper or complete your project.  Just showing up is not enough to earn a degree.

Just “showing up” at your wedding might get you married, but it doesn’t build a living, loving, caring, give-and-take, make-it-through-the-hard-times relationship.

Just “showing up” at the birth of your child might make you a parent, but it does not make you a diaper-changing, up-all-night, doing homework, enforcing curfews, saving for college, Mom or Dad.

Just “showing up” at church on Sunday morning might make you a member in good standing, but it does not by itself put feet on your faith.  G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” To be a Christian takes action; it takes a day-to-day commitment to follow Jesus wherever that leads.

The guest at the wedding didn’t have to show up.  But if he was going to attend, he needed to truly be there.  His nonchalant attitude about the celebration showed that he was not all in.  Just showing up didn’t cut it. 

The fact is, going all in with God is not an easy choice.  Not today, not in our culture.  Turning to God has become a fairly counter-cultural choice.  So the question is, Is God happy just to have guests at the wedding?  Is God happy just to have people show up?

Tom Ehrich wrote,

It turns out that choosing God is, as always, a matter of going all in.  Not just the easy commandments, but the hard ones.  Not just loving friends, but loving enemies.  Not just good times, but suffering.  Not just going along with the crowd, but standing for justice and mercy.  Not just praying for oneself, but for others.  Not just the pleasing rituals of Sunday communion, but confession, remorse, lost certainties, new ways of being, mission to the world.  Not just hot coffee, but the wind of change.
Most of Jesus’ parables can be put into two categories:  parables of grace and parables of judgment.  Which is this?  I have no idea.  I think, really, probably, this is both.  The doors are flung open wide and everyone is invited to God’s great feast.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome.  God’s grace and welcome are offered freely, to all.  But with grace comes accountability.  There is tension there, a balance.  When grace is ignored and refused and squandered and mocked, again and again, there will be consequences.  If there weren’t, then grace really wouldn’t mean very much.

We want to skip the judgment component, but judgment is about God’s love too.  It is meant as a warning, meant to steer us the right way.

Those who refused the invitation to the wedding, and the one who showed up but then refused in his own way to join the celebration, failed to recognize the incredible gift they had been offered.

We are all invited to God’s party.  We are all offered God’s wonderful, marvelous, gracious invitation.  Every one of us.  To accept the invitation requires showing up, yes, but it requires more.

In the parable, the guests needed to change clothes.  In God’s kingdom, we are to change our lives.  We are called to not just show up but to be truly, fully present, to change our hearts and minds and spirits.  And then together, through God’s grace, we are called to go out like those servants, inviting everybody to the feast.  May it be so.  Amen. 



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