Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Those of you who are new to this place may wonder why it is that we use a certain scripture lesson each week. It’s not like we’ve been going verse by verse through the Bible each week for the sixty years this congregation has been around or anything. And it’s certainly not that I figure out what I want to say and then find a verse in scripture to support what it is that I want to tell you. The Bible is so large, and so complex, that there’s support for almost anything you could possibly want to argue about. If you want to argue about the merits of being a vegetarian, you can find ammunition in scripture. If you want to say we should handle snakes in worship, you can find that, too. You can probably find something that suggests God is a Georgia fan, which is, of course, ridiculous, because we all know that God roots for the University of Tennessee.
No, the reason we end up with certain scriptures on certain Sundays is that we have a custom of following the Lectionary, the 3-year cycle of weekly readings that all of the world’s major denominations have agreed upon. Not every church uses it, but many of them do, and there are certain lessons picked out for certain Sundays, and I like that, because it keeps me honest, it keeps me from bending scripture to fit my own biases, which is something the politicians do enough of already, so it’s not like we need preachers to jump on that particular bandwagon.
I almost always like that, and then there are Sundays like today, when we have so many new folks among us, so many children. We want to be hospitable, of course, because we’ve found something really special here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, and we’d like everybody to feel at home here and experience some of the special-ness that lives here. But on this Sunday, on this Sunday with so many children and so many newcomers and such sweetness in the air, we are dealt one of the most difficult stories to explain in all of the Bible, the most difficult parable that Jesus tells, so difficult that it ends with a guy who probably can’t even afford a wedding robe being thrown out of the party and out into the street.
And you know what I think is most difficult about this? Not that it seems so out of character for the church. What’s is difficult, to me, is that it seems so in character. Oh, not here—certainly not here—but it fits our own preconceived notions about the church being holier than thou, thinking they are better than everybody else, the kind of place that stands guard outside the doors of the party by the velvet rope and only lets the special people through. And that’s bad enough, but when you start thinking about the idea that God might have been involved in this unjust decision, well, it’s almost too much for me to bear. That’s not how I understand God’s radical love for everybody, no matter what. It doesn’t match that message we sometimes put on the church sign, that young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, you are welcome here, as if all of those things are fine as long as you are dressed properly. If that’s the God we are talking about—the kind who throws people out on a technicality, as if you can offer a meal to a person who is homeless and expect him to show up in tails —then I’m out. There’s no grace in that, no love.
Of course, Jesus’s stories are not to be taken literally, at least not these kinds of stories. There were no actual servants, no actual wedding garments. Parables are stories that point to greater truths, if you’re willing to squeeze them until the juice comes out.
For instance, one of the things we learn from this parable is that God sets an exquisite table but that people don’t always respond. This resonates with me. I am a little bit of a foodie, which might not surprise you. I love a good meal on a special occasion, and I’m shocked by the number of people who just scarf down fast food in their cars or what have you, instead of savoring, enjoying. And this is the way God’s world is, too. God creates this world in which loving one another is so meaningful, loving God is so rewarding, and yet we ignore it, we go about our business looking out for number one, forgetting that it is by loving others that we will, ourselves, experience love.
But what is more, when those hoity toity people who feel as if they deserve the best things in life decide that they have better things to do, God turns around and offers the meal to the poor, the homeless, the outcast, and this I can get behind, because I’ll be honest, there are times in my life when I feel outcast, when I feel like an outsider. It’s not easy to be a Christian these days. I’ve told this story before, but when my wife Stacey, who is also a United Methodist minister, and I go to cocktail parties, we have a game we play that just never fails. When the conversation gets kind of tedious, we ask the person we’re talking to what he or she does for a living and then we start timing it. Because once the other person says that she’s a doctor or he’s a teacher or whatever, they ask us the same question, and we tell them the truth, that I’m a United Methodist pastor, and they sort of back away slowly, like they’ve run across a crazy person or a live landmine. This can be what it’s like for any of us: what do you mean you can’t be there Sunday morning? You have church?!
The truth is, I’d wager that none of us feels entirely adequate, none of us thinks we’re good enough, and there’s a certain part of us that identifies with the outcasts that God brings into the party, that says thank goodness, because nobody takes me seriously in my usual life, at least I’ve got God.
And so it was with Jesus. We know that Jesus, who was an outcast himself, spent his whole life welcoming those who’d been outcasts, the kind of people you wouldn’t exactly call polite company. Prostitutes. Sinners. Broken people. The kind of people the traditional religious communities wouldn’t have anything to do with. The kind of people that inspire us here at North Decatur to welcome everybody, no matter what, because these are the kinds of people closest to Jesus’s heart. And so when he tells the story of the wedding feast, he makes a point to say that they went and pulled people off the street. They didn’t do background checks or call references. They just grabbed them, brought them inside, and gave them the most delicious meals of their lives.
This is the kind of God I worship. The kind of God I can get behind. And yet, like sometimes happens in the Bible, we get thrown this little detail, this one line that stands in the way of my full-throated acceptance of this story and makes me want to put on a singlet and meet it at the middle of that mat to wrestle.
The king came in and saw this beautiful scene of these outcasts eating this delicious meal, the kind of thing you’d expect in an oil painting, but upon noticing one of them without the proper garment, grabs him by the lapel, drags him to the front door, and throws him outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I was fine with this story until this last detail, of course: partly because the business of casting people out doesn’t jive with my understanding of God, but if I’m honest, and I try to be, the bigger problem is that I worry that I’m the one without the wedding garment. I’m the imposter. It’s a common fear, that you grow up and you go to work and have a family, or create adult relationships and have some level of authority, and you just worry you’re going to be found out, like you’re an imposter in your own body just waiting for somebody to notice, to drag you by the lapel, and to throw you out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Thank goodness this is just a story, a parable, sort of a fable to get us thinking, rather than a literal story of God, because it is difficult enough for us to get through our baggage to deal with it as it is. But there it is in scripture, even in the lectionary on the day all you preschool families are here, so we’ve got to deal with it, difficult or not.
I want you to know that I have spent a whole lot of time meditating on this story, reading about it, praying about it, seeing what other people have to say about it, that sort of thing. And I have come to three conclusions. Let me share those with you.
First, the doors are indeed open wide. In God’s world, everybody is welcome, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, purple, green, or polka-dotted, you are welcome here. And those who stand against welcoming everybody into God’s house stand counter to the God I worship, the Jesus I read about in scripture who welcomed everyone, who affirmed the humanity in each person he met, who went to such lengths as to go out into the street and compel people to come in and receive the greatest meal of their lives. This is why we put such an emphasis on welcoming. There’s enough in life telling you that you aren’t good enough. If anybody ought to be tasked with welcoming everybody, it ought to be the church. The doors are indeed opened wide.
Second, the process of following Jesus, which is what are about here, doesn’t mean you get to come in, say “I will” when the pastor asks you the membership vows, but then stay the same, as if nothing has changed, as if nothing will ever change. That’s not how this works. We have expectations, or, better, said, God has expectations, that when you joined the church and promised to uphold it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ—that you weren’t holding your fingers behind your back! The business of being God’s children is for real. Christian living is for real, and we won’t apologize for asking those of you who call North Decatur UMC home to work towards setting aside a portion of your income to the work of God through this church. Nobody’s getting rich here, but without all of those things—prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness—we can’t be the church! We need all of these things, and we don’t mean to privilege money above other things, but it seems as if money is the hardest topic, the most difficult vow, the most complicated oath, because yes I’ll pray, and yes I’ll be here as long as the Georgia game doesn’t run too long, and I’ll serve; I’ll even publicly testify to my allegiance to Jesus. Just leave my money alone. The poor sap without a wedding garment wasn’t thrown out because he couldn’t afford one. He was thrown out because he confused the warm welcome with low expectations.
Let me say it this way: if you aren’t convinced that what we are doing here, that the business of serving the poor, of welcoming all people, of being a witness for justice in the world so that everybody has enough, of sharing the love and message of Jesus Christ with everybody—if you aren’t convinced that this stuff is the most important stuff in the whole world, there’s plenty you could do on Sunday morning. I haven’t always been a church guy. I know about the brunch specials at Sweet Melissa’s. But if it is the case that we’re doing important things, the most important things, I think God wants us to acknowledge that these things are priority one, not to break us, not to cause us financial pain, but because the business of being generous, the business of really, really loving other people and living for other people and for God is the most wonderful thing there is. That’s the mystery of love: that you won’t have it unless you share it. You can’t run out. To be faithful is to recognize that God meets us where we are but expects us to grow, to give more, to serve more, to love more.
And finally. I think it is significant that the poor sap was thrown out of the wedding because he wasn’t wearing the proper party attire. In the final analysis, he was thrown out for failure to party. This doesn’t mean we should all eat, drink, and be merry at the expense of going to the difficult places and doing the difficult things, but it does mean that if you can’t get to a place where you are serving less out of dour obligation than out of love, there is no wedding garment, no rented tuxedo in the world that looks good enough to hide your resentment. It may sound weird to say that you need to choose to be joyful, but in the final analysis, it is a choice. It’s a scary one, for it means serving more than you expected, giving more than you planned, loving more than you think you’re capable of. But if you make that choice, if you are willing to do the work of joy and find gladness in serving others, in being about the work of the Lord, in enjoying the food that has been set before you, you will find yourself in the presence of the God who loves nothing more than preparing the feast, and as a bonus, you’ll be dressed appropriately for the party. In the name of God the creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.