Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and his Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s a terrible bedtime story. Absolutely terrible. The current Energizer battery commercial, perhaps you’ve seen it? It features eight young boys at a campout, and the only adult present is telling them a bedtime story. Says he “And they say that the man continues searching for his lost head in these hills to this very day. Okay…time for bed!”
And these young boys go off to their tents, filled with fear over what they have just heard. Any story that leaves us filled with fear is a terrible story, in my mind, and that even goes for parables.
This story Jesus tells in today’s gospel lesson is just such a story. “The Kingdom of heaven is like this” Jesus says. “A king has invited all his friends and relatives to his son’s wedding reception, but they’re busy and they decline the invitation. What does the king do? He kills them all for turning down his invitation, and he invites all the neighborhood losers to the party. Now, one of the losers isn’t wearing a suit; he’s wearing clean blue jeans and a Polo shirt, but that’s not appropriate attire, so the king kills him, too.” Okay, time for a hymn! It’s a terrible parable about the Kingdom of God. Because we’re looking for joy and we find retribution. We’re expecting forgiveness and we discover punishment. What kind of parable is that?
If we are going to grasp the meaning of this parable, the place where we must begin is simply that God is inviting us to a party. And better yet, that the party is free. Author Anthony Campolo got into trouble with the evangelical right a few years ago when he wrote a book entitled “The Kingdom of God is a Party.” The religious right was offended. They were offended because they believed that the Kingdom of God was more like a courtroom where the guilty are condemned. “Not so!” says Campolo. “The Kingdom of God is a party where the guilty are set free!”
So this is where we must begin today, in understanding the meaning of this parable; that the King was inviting his guests to a free dinner, and his guests said no. In fact, they didn’t say that they couldn’t come, they said they wouldn’t come. Not if it’s a party. Not if the atmosphere is going to be celebration and laughter and forgiveness and joy. They would not go to that sort of party.
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There are times when I think Jesus is describing us in this parable; those of us who come to the weekly wedding feast called “worship” when we refuse to see it as a party. Rather, we see it as an obligation that we have to attend, and so should everybody else attend. Don’t smile. Don’t rejoice. Just sit there and take it like a man!
In 1979, when the green Lutheran Book of Worship was published, and Lutherans were first introduced to “the sharing of the peace” I knew a man who resented that practice. He saw it as an unnecessary frivolity, and he refused to participate. One Sunday, a young woman extended her hand and a smile, and the man crossed his arms and said “I already shook.”
On a more serious note, there are those who gather for worship on Sunday morning, and their hour is anything but a celebration of joy. Rather, it is an hour of judgment and criticism. They don’t come looking for grace, they come looking for performance, and they are often disappointed.
· Did the pastor say all the right things?
· Did the choir hit all the right notes?
· Were the bulletins error-free?
· Did all the children behave themselves?
I used to wear a Mickey Mouse watch on my left wrist, even to church on Sunday morning. All the children loved me for it. But one Sunday noon, the chair of the Worship Committee approached me and said that she was offended, because when I handed her the Body of Christ, she saw the face of Mickey Mouse. And further, she told me, she wouldn’t be communing again until I stopped wearing that watch. You think she was coming to church to rejoice…or to criticize?
In the parable, the King rejects those who reject his invitation, and he now extends it to all the losers in town. They’re the ones who know how to get down and party anyway! They’re the ones who know a free gift when they see one. So this time, the servants of the King go to the bars and back alleys and boondocks of the city, and announce that there’s a party at the palace and the king would welcome them. And all the losers go to the party, and in the presence of the king, they rejoice into the night.
Several years ago in Atlanta Georgia, there was a terrific power wedding scheduled in a suburban church. A wealthy debutante was engaged to marry an equally wealthy businessman, and a lavish reception was to follow. Just hours before the wedding, the groom got cold feet; he left his bride – literally – standing alone at the altar. The wedding, of course, was cancelled. But what would they do with all that food? It had already been paid for and prepared. The Atlanta Constitution reported that buses were sent to the Salvation Army and several downtown shelters, and they brought street people to the country club, where they sampled fresh crab and lobster, and steamed baby carrots well into the night.
People, that is us; we who have no reason to think that the King of the Universe should have anything to do with us sinners. But he has invited us to a party, and it is totally free and undeserved. And he wants us to rejoice and be glad. But the King also wants to change us with his grace, and this is where the parable of Jesus takes on a dramatic turn at the end.
“When the king came in to the banquet, he saw a guest who was not wearing a wedding robe.” That doesn’t mean that the guest was wearing the wrong clothes, but rather, that he was wearing the wrong attitude. He rejoiced at the party, but there was no humility about him. He was cavalier. He was unaffected by the astonishing hospitality of the king. And so he planned to go back to his loser life in the coming days, and still return to the party again next week for another free meal. He was not properly adorned in humble gratitude.
And this is the truth about the God who has invited us to this party; that he invites us to come as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. He wants to change us, to mold us and make us into honest to goodness children of a king. It’s a process; a journey that happens over time, but certainly, it begins with gratitude.
To treat that gift of forgiveness so lightly is to dabble in the “cheap grace” of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. But to leave this party every week, asking God to go with us into the messy chapters of our lives, and to lead us on a journey toward righteousness; that is the ultimate purpose of this parable.
May God give us courage to see ourselves in this story, and faith to receive his grace with joy. And then worship would indeed become “a foretaste of the feast to come.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2002, Steven Molin. Used by permission.