I don’t know if it’s been like this for those of you who’ve already been married, but as someone who’s engaged and making preparations for a wedding I’m struck by how, all of a sudden, the world seems full of weddings. In real life, sure, but on television, in movies, in the parks, standing on the steps of the Field Museum, taking photos in front of the Bean. Once you’re looking for them, weddings and wedding parties are everywhere!
It’s been an autumn full of weddings within the St. Luke’s community as well. In September I presided at the wedding of our friends Sara Spoonheim and Yali Amit, whom many of you have met as they live in the neighborhood and often worship here at St. Luke’s. The following week I presided at the wedding of our friends John Carlisle and Mary Gewargis, now a Carlisle as well, at the top of the John Hancock Center. And just yesterday I was down in St. Louis, presiding at the wedding of our former student Will Storm and his lovely wife Erin. It has been a season of weddings and wedding banquets.
In this digital age, invitations to weddings come in a variety of ways. In the last few months Kerry and I have received invitations to save-the-date on hand-crafted postcards; we’ve received formal invitations with envelopes inside of envelopes inside of envelopes like Russian nesting dolls; and we’ve gotten entirely digital invites, with animated envelopes leading to online photo albums and RSVP lists. In the face of so much variety, one thing remains the same: a reply is expected.
Again, I understand this with a new appreciation, as Kerry and I try to put together the jigsaw puzzle of guest lists and caterers and venues. Wedding banquets may be happening all the time, but the one you plan yourself is a once-in-a-lifetime affair, or so you hope. You need to know who’s coming so that you can be a prepared host.
Despite all that has changed in the customs and practices surrounding marriage, not least of which is the ever-expanding freedom to marry which we are witnessing once again this past week, some things remain constant — like the joy of the one hosting the banquet, the honor of being invited, and the expectation that such an invitation will be answered. This morning’s familiar parable from the gospel of Matthew plays on those expectations as Jesus tells the tale of a wedding banquet gone horribly wrong.
At first things seem quite normal: the king announces a wedding banquet in honor of his son’s marriage and sends messengers to deliver the invitations. It would be a great honor to be invited to such a banquet, a royal banquet. The kinds of folks Jesus was talking to weren’t on these kinds of guest lists, so their imaginations would’ve had to fill in the details — the food, the wine, the music, the dancing, the entertainment, the access to people with wealth and power.
Then the parable makes its dramatic turn and everything we would expect to follow gets completely derailed. Those who have been invited to the wedding banquet treat the invitation as inconsequential. They continue on with their lives as if the invitation had never been received. Some even go so far as to kill the king’s messengers. An occasion for joy has become a provocation to violence.
Because his audience was made up of Israelites steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, which are filled with stories like the ones Jesus told, they knew they were listening to an allegory, a fiction crafted to help us see something about ourselves we might prefer to avoid knowing, like when the prophet Nathan told King David the story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb to serve at his feast and ended the story saying, “you are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-15) At this point in the telling of this parable, Jesus’ audience must ask itself, who are these people who would treat an invitation from the king so lightly, would ignore an invitation to a royal banquet, would even attack those who bore the invitation to them?
This is another one of those moments where I’m tempted to ask you to turn to your neighbor and discuss where you see this story playing out in the world around us — where you see people and communities being invited to share in the joy of rich abundance, but who respond with apathy or even hostility — but I won’t, not yet, because the parable isn’t done, and it only gets weirder from here.
When the king learns that his messengers have been killed he’s understandably enraged, but his response seems disproportionate to the offense. He not only sends troops to destroy those who murdered his people, but he burns the city — presumably his own city — to the ground.
At this point in the story we need to know not only what Jesus’ audience knew, the stories from Hebrew scripture and such, but also what the gospel writer Matthew’s audience knew. A common assumption is that Matthew’s gospel was written fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ ministry, and ten or more years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. That event, the destruction of the Temple, was cataclysmic for Jewish people, forever reshaping how Jewish identity was maintained and passed on. Stories like this one seem to be, at least on one level, an attempt to grapple with how and why God would allow such violence to occur. How do we reconcile our assumptions of an all-powerful, in-control God with the destruction of the culture and institutions we have associated with the worship of God for generations.
Again, I wonder where you hear yourself, where you hear us, in this story. Can you empathize with Matthew’s audience — people living during a generation in which the culture they’d taken for granted; the political accommodations between church and state; even the building, the sanctuary, to which they’d brought their offerings for generations was all disappearing before their very eyes? Here I don’t need to ask you to turn to your neighbor, because you have been turning to your neighbor for weeks now, meeting in small groups here at the church or in one another’s homes, to talk about St. Luke’s and our future together. To consider possibilities that were once unspeakable, that we might have to find new ways of being church together without this sanctuary, this temple, where we have gathered for over a century with the generations that came before us.
Then the parable takes yet another unexpected turn. Having razed the city to the ground, the king once again sends messengers out into the streets and instructs them to bring anyone they can find, “both good and bad.” This is an odd king, who takes greater offense at apathy than evil. This king seems to care less whether you are good or bad, than whether you acknowledge the invitation you receive and respond accordingly. To make this point even clearer, the story continues. One of the guests who finally does arrive, we have no idea if he is “good” or “bad,” is found without a robe, the appropriate attire for the event. When called to account for his lapse in etiquette, the man is speechless, so he is expelled from the banquet into the darkness.
What a story to be telling one another on a morning when we welcome children and their families to come to the communion rail and share in the Lord’s Supper, the feast of victory for our God, the meal we share with all God’s saints of every time and every place. As they have prepared for this day they’ve been taught that this food and this drink is a celebration of how God loves us, how God feeds us, how God cares for us, how God shares with us. We have taught them in the simplest terms what we will continue to teach one another throughout our lives of discipleship, that in this place all are welcome and there is always enough to go around. Jesus’ parable, refracted through the lens of Matthew’s own experience, confirms that central message of open doors and abundant tables, even as it asks us to examine our own actions. As we gather in this place, do we gather like those who know they’ve been invited to share in God’s good economy? Do we look and sound like those who, following Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi “rejoice in the Lord always?” Are we wearing our wedding robes?
God’s invitations are all around us. They sit in our inbox, our mailbox, at our door. They point to a reality that is waiting, available for us to join, here and now. You were not invited because you are good. You have not been excluded, no matter how bad you think you may be. The doors are open to anyone and everyone. The feast is taking place — here, now, today and every day, with children and elders, with those who have died and those still yet to come, with the homeless and the homeowner, with the rich and the poor, with the rulers and the ruled, with the hungry and the well-fed, with the whole world. The banquet table has been set, and you have been invited. Put on your robe and come to the party.