God loves a feast and celebration. He promises to “make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” To this feast will come all those who have spent years in exile away from their homeland. To this banquet will be invited the poor, the needy and those who have been without homes. The meal will be set upon the same mountain that had been overrun by those who oppressed and tried to eliminate God’s people.
In the vision of God’s fullness, the refugee will return, the sorrowful will laugh with joy, those who have lived a life of shame will be able to stand up tall and the long period of waiting for deliverance will be over.
Even when the times are difficult, when death is near and danger surrounds us, God will “spread a table in the presence of those who trouble me.” God draws us together for joy and gratitude even during the tough times. Like me, you may know people facing difficult diagnoses and terminal illnesses who are nevertheless blessed by gatherings of friends and family whom they haven’t connected with for years. The meal after a funeral with children running around, stories told, laughter and tears can be a rich experience of feast and celebration.
Of course, nothing is quite like the celebration at a wedding. Bryon and I are still talking about our wedding day of over 10 years ago when there was such a sense of joy and love and hope in the air. What a grand celebration it was for a Norwegian, Lutheran, bachelor pastor and a spinster Episcopal priest to share their joy with all their friends and family their in this service of commitment and celebration.
So it’s no surprise that Jesus likens God’s Kingdom to a wedding banquet. In the gospels, Jesus is often described as the bridegroom and God’s people as the bride. In Matthew’s parable, God is the over the top parent of the groom who spares no expense or trouble to plan a wedding party. The king sends out the invitations way in advance. Just like today, he doesn’t trust people to truthfully RSVP. So he sends out his slaves as messengers to remind everyone that the great party is at hand. The table is spread. The finest foods are prepared. The band is kickin’ and the decorations are carefully set.
But the guests choose not to come. They offer excuses. They have better things to do. There is more work to be done, money to be made and they don’t have time for a party. Jesus stretches the parable to tell of some guests who actually kill the messengers of the king, just as the Israelites killed the prophets who promised the coming wedding feast of the Lord.
The celebration is ready. The party is planned but none of the invited guests are coming.
What’s a host to do? What shall the King, who loves his son do? First he kills those who murdered his innocent slaves who were just doing his bidding. This is first century justice. The parable is in line with expected practice. The point is made. But then the surprise comes. The twist that is the heart of every parable catches our imaginations and calls us to wonder.
The King doesn’t cancel the feast. Instead he sends out more slaves into what we now know are dangerous conditions and invites everyone, regardless of pedigree, earning power, religious fidelity, or even good character to be guests at the wedding. The room is filled with the good and bad, with the rich and poor, with the deserving and undeserving. The party can begin, but with a very unexpected cast of characters.
And if you were listening to this parable as one of those who might consider yourself the very first to be invited to God’s banquet, you might be getting a little nervous. You might be a little insecure about what you thought was most important in life. You might question what you thought about the king and what he values most. Perhaps you would feel sorrow over missing the feast or remorse for ignoring or mistreating the messengers of the king.
Perhaps this strange little parable of Jesus is a wake-up call for those whose busyness and business are shutting them off from who and what is truly important.
It’s a strange and disturbing parable but then at the end it gets even weirder. There is the wedding guest who comes at the last minute and doesn’t have the right clothing. As a result he is unable to stay at the party and is thrown out, away from light and laughter into a place of bitterness, anger and complaint, also known as “gnashing of teeth.” Why in the world does this one guest in the midst of all the other shady characters at the party get the boot? What is going on?
Let me tell you a little story that has me thinking about this. This past Thursday I was in Berkeley at my seminary to receive an honorary degree. They had also asked me to be the celebrant at the Eucharist in the seminary chapel. It was one of those affairs with many of the luminaries of the church present, including bishops, deans, trustees, faculty and big donors. And because it was such a big event, everyone who had fancy dress was expected to wear it.
For me it became very complicated. Ultimately, it would mean changing my clothes 5 times! First there was my clerical outfit, on top of which I wore a cassock, surplice and stole while leading the first part of the service and receiving the hood of my honorary degree. At the peace I had to rush out and replace all of that with an alb, stole and chasuble. Then I could preside at the table for the Eucharist.
Once the service had ended, I rushed out again to change back into the cassock, surplice and hood for photos. Then while everyone was at the reception before dinner, I got into my party clothes for the banquet.
Now I have to tell you that there was a part of me that found the whole exercise a bit silly and over the top. For the past year I wondered about whether this was really important or not. I didn’t make too much out of it. It was certainly true that Bryon was more excited for me than I was for myself. Even up to the ceremony, I was downplaying it and refusing to get too worked up over it.
But then something changed. When I saw how important this was to so many people who cared for me and what it meant to those gathered to celebrate the work and ministry of the other honorees, I was humbled. It wasn’t up to me to refuse or downplay or disregard this celebration. It would have been incredibly ungracious of me to refuse to participate or to come unprepared. The students who served as acolytes and as my personal dresser were thrilled to be part of the event. People from every church and diocese I had served in came long distances to celebrate with me even though the fires in Northern California made it difficult for them.
And best of all, that night words were said that affirmed the good news of Jesus and the joy of serving as workers in the vineyard of the Lord. Our little church was lifted up as an example of what it means to care for the least, the last and the lost. The dedication of faithful servants of God’s Kingdome was acknowledged and celebrated. I got to tell a little of the sweet story of how God’s Spirit is alive and well in Ballard where the table is set every Sunday (as well as Monday through Friday in the Edible Hope Kitchen) and the guests show up to receive food for the soul and the cup of new life.
The fancy costume and nice party wasn’t for me, nor was it about me. It was for the honor of all who serve at God’s table. It was an opportunity to do what Paul commands us to, “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
So my friends, let’s celebrate! Let’s rejoice that God has invited us to the party and made a place for us at the table. Let’s receive gratefully and give generously. Let’s remember who and what is important. Finally let’s rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!
Proper 23, Year A
Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14