There are so many uncertainties in life, so very little we can ever know for sure. There is one thing, however, that I am convinced is a universal truth of human life: weird stuff happens at weddings.
Because of my profession I have perhaps attended more weddings than the average person, and been in-the-know on many behind the scenes situations. My experience includes but is not limited to: too much hairspray causing a bridesmaid’s hair to catch on fire as she walked past the lit candelabra up front; the cake collapsing at the reception; the unity candle refusing to light—try finding words to make that turn of events seem meaningful….
One particularly memorable wedding I performed was scheduled for a 6:00 p.m. start time one Saturday evening. The church I served then didn’t have an organist; instead we employed several students from area universities who rotated playing the organ. Our music director had arranged for one of them, a talented young man of 19, to play for the wedding that night.
Matt was a great guy and a really gifted musician. But did I mention he was 19? The church was open and ready to go at 5. At 5:15 I started looking for Matt, as he and I had never done a wedding together before—there were certainly a few details to run through. By 5:30 I started to get a little bit concerned, but the bride and groom didn’t seem to notice that the musician wasn’t there yet. At 5:45, when the pre-wedding music was supposed to start, Matt wasn’t there, and I started to panic. Like, panic.
In general, I am pretty good on my feet—after all, I did mange to make meaning out of an unlit unity candle…. However, in this situation I was seriously coming up empty: I mean, what was I going to do, hum Pachabel’s canon? I ran down the hall to where our Burmese congregation was gathered for a meeting and pulled their pastor aside to ask if anyone in their group could play, well, anything. There was, in fact, one nice woman who said she could pick out “Here Comes the Bride” with one hand on the piano, if I got desperate.
By then it was 5:55, and I was well beyond panic. As I rushed into the hallway to go back to the sanctuary and tell the bride and groom the situation, the elevator doors opened and out stepped Matt. “Pastor Amy, sorry I’m a little late,” he said. “The metro was running slow tonight!”
I can’t remember exactly what I did, but I’m pretty sure it involved dragging poor Matt down the hallway by his collar.
Strange things happen at weddings, and you don’t even have to be a minister to know that. Today’s gospel lesson, in fact, is a perfect example.
In this one, Jesus was telling another story to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus was always and forever doing, trying to paint for his disciples a vivid picture of God’s best dreams for our world—a world filled with justice and mercy and love. And this time around Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet.
So, here’s how the story went. There was this king whose son (the prince) was getting married.
The king was so happy about the occasion that he decided to throw a huge party in honor of his son, something many parents do on such an occasion. He prepared everything—made a huge dinner and roasted the finest cuts of meat. He got the place cards ready and started the chocolate fountain, and then he had his servants go to the homes of the important folks he’d invited to tell them the party was ready!
Well, do you know . . . they were too busy to come?
They were too busy to stop their day to day activities, brush their hair, shine their shoes and go to the king’s party!
The king was enraged, as you might be if you had paid for all those folks to come to a fancy banquet like that! (I recently discovered that an average price per attendee for a sit down meal and full bar at a wedding reception is between $100-$200 per person, leading me to believe that my children will be celebrating their weddings with a potluck in South Hall.) I am not sure how much the king spent, but the text says he was so mad that he killed all the folks who did not bother to attend (which, outrageous cost aside, is not something I would generally recommend).
But the party was ready, and the bride and groom were happy, and the king needed guests to attend, so he sent his servants out into the streets to invite anyone they could find—the text says the good and the bad—so that by the time the king arrived the banquet hall was filled with guests ready to celebrate his son’s great occasion.
The story ends right there in the gospel of Luke—such a nice story about those who are self righteous, too arrogant to respond to God’s invitation, and God going out into the streets, even, to invite whoever wants to come to the prince’s wedding reception of all things! We preachers love Luke’s version because we can wax eloquent about radical inclusion, God’s great love for the whole entire world!
But today we’re reading the gospel of Matthew, and Matthew won’t let us stop with a nice message like that—his story goes a little further. Matthew wants to remind us that when Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, about bringing justice and mercy to life in the world, that painful transformation begins not with the world around us…but with the hearts within us.
The political situation in which people were reading Matthew’s memoir, both within the church and within the society around it, might have led Jesus’ listeners to feel, well, a little bit self-righteous when they read the first part of this wedding story. The people reading Matthew had lived through the Roman army marching into Jerusalem sometime between 66 and 70 AD, taking over the city and burning it to the ground. They read this parable of Jesus in around 80 AD and the picture of the angry king destroying those who would not respond to his invitation was illustrated by that horrible experience still fresh on their minds.
It may have been tempting for them to feel just a little bit smug as they heard this parable of Jesus and quickly found their places in the story—as the good guys, the ones who accepted the king’s invitation, of course.
And 2000 years later it might be tempting for us to feel just a little smug as well—we must be the outsiders that God has invited to the party in the end, right?
Well, Matthew and Jesus were not about to let the first Christians get too smug. And, for that matter, us either.
It’s true: if those first listeners or you or I suspect that the loose ends of this nice story are a little tied-up-too-neatly, well then . . . we would be correct. To find the weird occurrence at this wedding party we just have to go back to the text and read the very end of Matthew’s story, where we hear that after all the poor people from the streets are invited in—the good, the bad, the ugly, all gathered to celebrate the king’s son’s wedding…and then the king himself, at last, arrived.
The hall was filled with guests, just as the king had hoped. Those who had snubbed his first invitation had been taught a lesson once and for all. His son was married and the food in the kitchen was plated. The wedding band was playing Kool and the Gang, the emcee was announcing the guests, it was time to have a party!
Really, really, really mad.
So mad that he tells his servants to take this guest, too, bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Sounds to me like the king needs some anger management courses, but we’re used to leaders like that…).
What, we might ask?
That doesn’t seem very nice, or gracious, or hospitable!
What if the guy didn’t have a fancy wedding robe to wear? What if he was too poor to dress up?
Weird things always happen at weddings.
Remember, follow the story as we all have up until now. God makes a place at the party for all of us. According to Matthew’s allegory, unlikely though it might seem, we got an invitation to the party after all.
But here’s the thing: some of us choose to treat the grand invitation of the king as just another occasion.
Can you believe it?
We forget altogether that this is an invitation unlike any other; that we should treat this invitation with the highest care and the most meticulous attention. The king has welcomed us to dinner—people even like you and me are invited to be part of this party that Jesus described as the kingdom of heaven.
Are we going to show up as an afterthought, adding the appointment to our Outlook calendars like just another appointment in a whole week of busy-ness?
Are we going to come resentfully, grudgingly, unprepared, gossip-filled, destructive . . . when we have been invited by the king of the universe to be just a little part of the kingdom of heaven coming to be right here and now?
It doesn’t matter who we are and what we have, there is no way we would dare show up at a party of the king wearing something like . . . meaningless platitudes . . . or unsubstantiated values . . . or undemonstrated priorities!
Don’t have a wedding robe as nice as the guy sitting next to you? It doesn’t matter, because the God who is bringing about a new way of living in this world is not concerned with what we wear, really. But be assured that God is paying close attention to how it is our hearts are adorned when we show up to do God’s work in the world.
We’ve been invited to be part of the kingdom of heaven, God’s hope coming to life for this earth. Given the incredible invitation, there’s no way any of us would ever want to crash this wedding, to show up underdressed. You know what I mean? The right thing to wear to a party like this would be something like . . . hmmmm . . . full commitment, or, generous giving, or how about a sacrificial offering of our time? Friends, this is a BIG party: the kingdom of heaven is coming to be, and there is no room for a lukewarm response.
My dear friend Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia. He told me a story once about something that happened to him early in his time as pastor there. To get to know the congregation, he was spending a lot of weekend evenings having dinner at the homes of members of his new church.
One night Jim and his wife Christy went to dinner at the home of a family who had three daughters, ages 8, 10, and 12. Apparently these three girls are very involved in the county fair, which happens around this time of year in Richmond. They work hard to bake pies, make jelly, and grow vegetables that they take down to the county fair and enter in as many competitions as they can, just to see how many ribbons they might bring home.
Well, it happened that the Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Somerville were coming to dinner on the very night the squash they had entered into competition had been judged.
After researching how squash grow best, tending the vines carefully, thoughtfully selecting the biggest, most unblemished and shining squash, they had won . . . best in show! A blue ribbon for the big yellow squash they had tended for weeks in the garden outside their bedroom windows.
As they gathered around the table to start their dinner, Jim and Christy noticed the big blue ribbon in the middle of the table.
It said: FIRST PLACE!
Having children themselves, Jim and Christy made sure to ask about the ribbon and learned all about the county fair. All of this conversation, of course, took place before dinner, but pretty soon it was time for dinner to be served. The girls helped bring out the first course for dinner, which was:
. . . . made with Richmond County Fair’s first place, blue ribbon winning squash, no longer on display at the fair, but right at home, in the kitchen, part of the meal that family prepared for someone they knew was very important to them . . . someone so special that they wanted to show their appreciation by offering the very best they had—a blue ribbon squash.
Weird things always happen at weddings, and this parable of Matthew’s is no exception. The story is not really about welcoming strangers to a party, although that’s good, too. It’s about how we show up for the work of God in the world. This story is about the so many times when you and I show up for the building of the kingdom of heaven unprepared, uninvolved, uncommitted—uninvested observers.
What we have a hard time remembering is that it is the God of the universe who invites us—even us—to participate in bringing about healing, hope, renewal, promise for this broken and pain-filled world in which we live.
How should we respond to the God who calls us to do justice and love mercy?
Should we show up as an afterthought, feeling noble because we would even deem to add the work of the church to our schedules and our budgets?
Or, might we gather together the very, very best of everything we have, the blue ribbons of our lives, and bring them here, to the altar of Christ, grateful . . . grateful beyond belief that God would even come to sit at the table with us and delight in what little we bring?
Today we welcomed new members to our community—what a gift. As we witness their commitment we should also be asking ourselves whether we show up here crashing the party, or whether we’re taking the work of God in this place and in the world seriously enough.
Why on earth would we ever, ever show up at the kingdom-of-heaven party wearing less than our best? God deserves so much more than that. So much more.
And so, it’s time. It’s time for you and me to get ready for whatever it is God is inviting us to become. Ready, so that when the invitation finally comes our way, well, we’ll be sure we know exactly how it is that we best show up for the part we will play in the great party that is the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t you even think about crashing this party, because showing up with anything less than our very best just will not do.