10.13.2005

Sunday, October 9th

If this were a story of a perfect party, a party drummed up by Martha Stewart, a party made memorable only by its gourmet cuisine, I wouldn’t know quite what to do with it. Such parties are all but foreign to me. My family history includes a number of parties that didn’t work out quite right. Sure, we had a few successes, but we seem to have a terrible track record. There was the time my grandmother literally made a VAT of potato salad for my sister’s graduation party. A week after the party, we still had three quarters of a vat of potato salad left, and my mother decided to discreetly send it down the garbage disposal while my grandmother bathed. Let this be a word to the wise: garbage disposals do not appreciate being asked to consume gallons of week-old side dishes. My mother was frantically trying to unclog the sink when my grandmother returned from her bath. Neither were terribly happy with the scene. Then there was the time my parents threw a sweet-sixteen party for my eldest sister. They decided to play it safe, and hire one police officer to patrol the parking lot of the city lodge to ensure that none of the teenagers got too rowdy. Well, the police apparently didn’t have much to do that night, because soon the police officer’s colleagues starting showing up to visit. By the time the kids’ parents came to pick them up, there were four police cars outside the party. Not that there was anything inappropriate going on—no loud music, no alcohol. But all the parents who saw the squad cars were appalled. So much for our reputation.

Parties are dangerous business. They are supposed to be fun, but so many factors threaten their carefree goal. There is the matter of food. Will we have too much, or too little? There is the matter of entertainment. Will people appreciate a game of charades? What if no one likes the band? And then there is the matter of invitations. Who’s in, and who’s out? Do we risk hurting the feelings of those who do not make the cut? And what if no one comes? Then what?

The parable set forth by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew unfolds within the ordinary context of a domestic party. A King wants to honor his son and daughter-in-law with a Wedding Banquet. Immediately, what should be a joyous occasion takes a terrible turn. The invited guests refuse to show up. The King sends out his slaves to plead with the guests to come. He encourages the slaves to describe the feast he has prepared— and this is no shabby feast. The guests of this party will dine on oxen and calf—the finest meats available. But the messenger slaves are treated with unconscionable violence. Some are even murdered. This celebratory feast is transformed into a violent rejection. The enraged King returns violence for violence, sending his troops to decimate the cities of the offenders—even as his dinner still simmers over the fire! And then he devises a new plan to populate his party. He tells his slaves to invite anyone and everyone they find on the street to come to the wedding banquet. Since the ones who had appeared worthy turned out to be disinterested at best and violent at worst, the King tries his luck with the ordinary riff-raff, the random folks who happen to be on the street when the slaves sweep by with the invitation.

The party commences. The memory of the day’s violence must still be on the minds of the King and his slaves. But the smell of the meat is delectable. And the delight of these guests—some good, some bad—must be palpable. They didn’t know they would be attending a feast when they woke up this morning. Some probably assumed they would go hungry. I can imagine their gratitude that they have been welcomed into this opulent gala. On Wednesday I received a call from a man desperate to find dinner for his family. He didn’t know about Shared Bread. As I told him the particulars and ensured him that there would be plenty for his whole family, he sighed deeply with relief that the crisis for the day had been averted. The gift of a meal is sometimes the best invitation a person can receive. But as the guests settle into their seats, the King notices that one guest has come unprepared. He is not outfitted in a wedding robe. The King’s honor is thoroughly offended, perhaps even worse than it had been by the guests who outright rejected his hospitality. He demands that the guest be cast into the darkness and prevented from reentering the party. The story concludes with foreboding words—many are called, but few are chosen.

The thing about parables is that they utilize symbols that we don’t always understand. We live in a different context, so some of the objects that are given special meaning in Jesus’ preaching are foreign to us. The wedding robe is one such object. To our 21st century American ears, it is easy to hear “wedding robe” and assume that this means appropriate wedding attire in our context. If that is true, this is a troublesome story, particularly if we are to assume that the King in this story demonstrates something about the nature of God. If we don’t understand the meaning of the symbols in this parable, we are in danger of seeing a mean-spirited God. After all, if you invite an impoverished homeless person to attend a swanky wedding reception, you can’t very well expect her to show up in a Sax Fifth Avenue gown. We need to read this parable in context— and we know from a whole slew of biblical passages that Jesus would never condemn someone for being economically poor. Jesus blessed the poor, and handed out a fair amount of warnings to the rich.

The wedding robe is not a symbol of economic privilege. The wedding robe is a symbol of honor, of preparation, of respect. When the King’s guests donned their wedding robes, they were not only accepting his invitation, they were allowing his invitation to transform them. By clothing themselves in the wedding robes, they were doing more than just showing up. Whether they were good or bad, rich or poor, the second-string wedding guests demonstrated that they were responding fully to the unexpected invitation.

The wedding robe symbolizes the way we respond to God’s gracious invitation to the heavenly communion feast. We are all invited—we are all called—but do we take the invitation lightly, or do we let the invitation transform our very souls?

The wedding banquet guest who failed to respond fully to the gift of the feast was caught totally unawares. Jesus said that he was struck completely speechless. He had nothing to say for himself. He had shown up—wasn’t that all that was required of him?

God issues an invitation to each and every one of us to come to the table of grace and redemption. The gift of faith is extended to all. But we are called to be more than Christians in name. We are called to more than simple belief. We are called to be followers of Christ. We are called to all kinds of hard actions that are part and parcel of the Christian faith. Accepting the invitation to the feast of God and genuinely receiving the gift of faith living lives that reflect God’s grace. This is not a matter of earning salvation by doing good work. As the apostle James wrote, faith without works is dead.

Authentic faithfulness means living and loving like Jesus. Following Christ means repenting from anything that holds us back from God. Following Christ means seeking justice and righteousness. Following Christ means forgiving those who have hurt us. It means loving each and every human being with whom we come in contact. An evangelical writer once said that the Christian need only cultivate two loves: the first, for God, and the second, for whoever is standing before you at the moment. When we accept the invitation to the feast of communion, we are not joining a country club. We are committing to carrying the cross of Christ—sharing the burden of planting seeds for the Kingdom of God in a broken world.

This parable is a searing judgment—through and through. It is a reminder that we worship a God who is more than simply nice. Through Christ Jesus, God has taught us how to live— not just what to believe, but how to live. But we must recognize that in the parable, only the King had the prerogative to send away the unchanged guest. This parable does not give the go-ahead to judge other Christians whom we deem to be ungracious, unloving, or unrepentant. This parable is a reminder to each and every one of us that we are called to be gracious, loving, and repentant.

The feast to which we are all invited is a sacrament of the Kingdom of God. We experience a taste of it here, as we take and eat the bread and the cup. This meal proclaims a heavenly feast in which all are reunited and united—good and bad, enemies and friends. Be transformed by this feast, sisters and brothers. Receive the invitation and respond to it with your whole life—for the gift which we are given is life everlasting. Amen.

5 comments:

Manateechik said...

If your church was closer to me, I'd definitely come check it out. I'm struggling to find one that I feel comfortable at right now. It's a big issue in my life right now. I've been at a particular church for over 6 years and have loved it and gotten so much out of it, but lately I've been realizing that I can't separate the parts I don't like from the parts I adore as easily anymore, and maybe it's time for me to see what else is out there.

Do you know of anything I might want to check out in the San Fernando Valley?

Steve said...

Hi manateechik,

I'm a member of South Bay CC, and yes it's a great church to be at right now. For a suggestion of a church in your area, maybe you could go to the Disciples of Christ regional church website, listed below, and see if there is one near you.

Please let us know how you are faring. As a word of encouragement for you, let me say that I have gone through times at my church similar to what you describe: "Lately I've been realizing that I can't separate the parts I don't like from the parts I adore as easily anymore," but I stuck it out, entered a little more closely into the life of the church, took on one or two leadership roles, and the life of the church changed and, in fact, got better. (Things always change, just not always for the better.)

Take care of yourself.

Peace,

Steve

http://www.disciplespswr.org/

Pastor Katherine said...

Hello manateechik,

Thanks for stopping by our church website. I also experienced the same struggle with finding a church home, but unlike Steve, I did not remain in the same community. If you are interested in exporing other churches, I would second Steve's suggestion to check out the regional site for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I briefly checked out your blog, and just from what I read, it sounds like you might be very comfortable in a mainline congregation- United Methodist, United Church of Christ (our sister denomination), Presbyterian, etc. Sometimes, though not always, denominational churches value social justice as part of their mission.

I don't know how close you are to Burbank, but you might check out First Christian Church of Burbank. I do not personally know the pastor there, but the website has a lot of great information. You can access it at http://www.burbankchristian.org/index.html .

Please feel free to come back again, either online or in person (should you ever want to take a field day to Redondo Beach!) Or you are welcome to email me at sbccdoc@verizon.net. Blessings!

Peace,
Katherine

Anonymous said...

Katherine:

Where did you do your Seminary education? Did you attend a Disciples Seminary?

Pastor Katherine said...

I attended Claremont School of Theology, which is a school related to the United Methodist Church. The Disciples Seminary Foundation supports Disciple students who attend CST (as well as Disciples students who attend Claremont Graduate University and Pacific School of Religion), so I took my History and Polity class and received financial and practical support from Disciples Seminary Foundation.