RCL Year A, Proper 23
There’s nothing worse than being invited to a party that you don’t want to go to. Or even worse, a wedding. Someone invites you because they count you as a friend or as an important connection, and they want you to be part of their special day – and you just don’t want to go. You have other things to do; there’s a game on that you are really bummed about missing; you know it’s going to be boiling hot at that wedding venue; and in the end, you don’t really like them that much anyway. So either you drag yourself there and grumble, or more likely, you come up with an excuse for why you can’t come. Ever felt that way?
Jesus’ parable is about those kinds of excuses. But not just the excuses we make to friends and colleagues – it’s about the excuses we make to God.
First we have to acknowledge how over-the-top and violent this parable is. A king invites people to a wedding, and not only do they make excuses for why they can’t come, but they beat and kill the postman delivering the invitation. Then in retaliation the king attacks and burns the city of those who RSVPed their regrets. He tries again to have his party, inviting people he doesn’t know off the streets to come instead. But when he finds one of those random guests wearing the wrong clothes, he throws him out into outer darkness.
Weddings are high-stress situations for many. But I would imagine that most of us have never been to one that felt quite like this.
There’s a whole history of hurt and rage behind Matthew’s version of this parable, the story of a community that was torn and turned against itself over who Jesus was and how they were to understand him after his death and resurrection. A lot of accusations about who’s really part of the wedding feast and who wasn’t ever part of it after all. And that hurt and anger has carried on through the centuries, with this parable and other texts used to justify horrible brutality and revenge on the part of Christians toward their Jewish brothers and sisters. We have to recognize the bloody legacy of this story, and what it was originally intended to convey – it doesn’t do to gloss over it.
But scripture has power in part because its meaning continues to evolve and change over time. This parable is not just an allegory of Jewish-Christian relations in the first century. It is a story about us, and about God. Because we are invited to a wedding. And all too often, we don’t really want to come – and then sometimes even when we do, we’re not really ready to be there.
The IAF core team leading the work of community organizing at ECA this last year has learned some things about our congregation along the way. We began this endeavor thinking about how we could engage more effectively with our neighbors, really become a larger part of the Almaden and San Jose community and serve others with our gifts. That idea galvanized some of us: we’ll get more involved and make a difference, we’ll attract people to join us! And it made others of us just tired: what, do more than we’re already doing? I’m already worn out. But very soon into the process we realized that even though many people at ECA named the quality of the community here as one of the main things they loved about the place, a lot of people in this community really didn’t know one another all that well. Some people didn’t even know the names of their fellow parishioners, let alone basic facts about their lives. And even those who did know others felt uncertain about how deep that relationship could go – they weren’t so sure they could talk about things like money, say, or which way they planned to vote in the next election, let alone matters of faith and doubt. And the core team realized that without that level of trust and relationship, we would have a hard time discerning and involving ourselves with new ministries outside of ECA.
That realization has been a long time coming, because the core team is itself made up of, well, people from the church too. People who didn’t know each other all that well and weren’t sure how far to push with each other. But it is emerging more clearly now, the sense that effort needs to be made to make this a real community of people that can go the distance with one another, through differences of opinion and risky new things. A community of people gathered around Jesus and the power of God at work in our lives. So you can expect to see more of that work interwoven into life here as the transition and search go forward.
It’s really just what the parable is talking about. There is a feast going on here, something that everyone is invited to. There’s a wedding in the offing, a joyous celebration of love and commitment and vulnerability. You could say a parish church is like a giant betrothal, a potential marriage for each and every person with each other and with God, the source of life and ground of our being. But all too often we don’t really say yes to the invitation. We don’t really want to come all the way in. It’s too inconvenient to change our lives that much. We have other things that seem more interesting. We like the reception, but we’re bored by the wedding ceremony, let alone the marriage that follows. So as lavish and wonderful as this wedding is promised to be, we just don’t really want to be there.
But think for a moment what it could be like to really say yes. Imagine a community where when you came, people were rejoicing to see you and to share with you about their journey of faith and to hear about yours, what really is true for you in your heart of hearts. Imagine a community where you were expected to live out sacrificial love for others, for the world – and were supported and taught in how to do that. Imagine a community that was working to transform every single member into a saint, transparent to God’s light and shining out into the dark world – and working to transform the whole world in the process.
That’s what the wedding feast in question would look like – that’s what a church could be.
It’s possible that if we were invited to that, we’d still really rather say no. Maybe that really is more than what we want out of church. It’s a legitimate answer. And despite the parable, I don’t think God will send troops to attack our city if we say no.
But I do think that is the question that ECA has been living into and will continue to live into for some time: what kind of community do you want to be? Are you ready to put on the wedding garments and really come in? Or are your farms and other commitments too compelling for you to leave?
I’m rooting for the core team here, as their efforts go forward. I think everyone would have a lot more fun at a wedding feast than off tending to their business. But it does take work to change old patterns and old clothes – it takes some discomfort before the new becomes familiar. So it will take prayer and good humor and patience going forward – happily, all of those things that ECA has in abundance. I think it’s all possible.
We are invited to a feast. A party that will demand our full attendance, our whole selves, our lives brought to the table – and that will feed us more abundantly than anything else we could find. The invitation will keep coming until we give our final response. So how about we put on our best and come to dance?