Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Come to the Party!

The capitol dome in Madison, Wisconsin.

OK, so I haven't been updating this blog like I thought I would so I will be trying to catch up.

This is a sermon that I gave at The Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on October 12, 2008. The basis for the message is
Matthew 22:1-22:14.

Jesus says "The Kingdom of God is like a party", and that sounds like good news, especially if you are a lover of parties.

Personally, I am not a great lover of parties. Indeed, I generally dread it when I am invited to a party. Questions immediately come to mind: ’who else is going to be there?’, ’do I have to get dressed up?’, ’can I get out of it?’

Now just so you don't think I'm really the world's most boring person, I did enjoy Fiesta Lopez that we had here in August.

Parties are meant to be fun of course, but we all know that some parties are just a hard to get through. If you have ever watched “Keeping up Appearances” on public TV or on BBC, you would recognize that Hyacinth Bucket's candlelight suppers are that type of party. It is not the sort of party where you stand around drinking beer and telling bad jokes. This is the sort of party where you dress well, speak appropriately, and make sure you pass the port in the right direction. These are the sorts of parties I really try to avoid.

Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is like a party". What sort of party is it?

The party Jesus is talking about is a royal wedding party, which means that it’s a rather significant party, and it starts out with a more exclusive guest list than you’d find at any of Hyacinth's dinner parties. All the important people have been invited, the nobles, the clergy, politicians and legal people, community leaders, business people, the movers and shakers from across the king’s domain, but, strangely, none of them want to come.

The king is a bit taken aback by this, so he reissues his invitation a little more forcefully, lest anyone should have misunderstood the exact nature of the party, or perhaps missed the fact that not attending was not really an option.

But still the invited guests just don’t take the king seriously at all. Y'know, one woman has an appointment with her hairdresser that day. Another guy had that day set aside to go looking for a new car. And some of the invited guests got so annoyed at being bothered again by the king that they set the dogs onto his messengers, and some of these messengers were even killed.

So the king is now royally ticked off, and he sends the army out, and they work through the same guest list, butchering each of the invited guests who decided that they had better things to do than go to the kings party. And then the army goes through and burns the villages where each of these people lived.

When the king’s servants return from their grisly work they find that their master, oddly enough, is still in the mood for a party. So he sends his messengers out again, but this time, instead of sending them out to the kingdom's corridors of power, which all have now been burnt to the ground, he sends them anywhere and everywhere, telling them "invite everybody" - rich and poor, black and white, slave and free, young and old, male and female, wise and stupid, gay and straight, good and bad. And this time, not surprisingly perhaps, it seems that nobody takes the king’s invitation lightly.

And so the story seems to be concluding with a happy scene of a palace filled with guests enjoying a great party, despite the lingering smell of the recently scorched villages in the background. Everybody appears to be having a good time, and the king is there, strolling amongst his invited guests, greeting each of them, regardless of their status or station in life, until he finds one character who didn’t bother to get dressed properly, and he says ’buddy, where is your tux?’ And this guy, who has come straight from work and is still in his grungy work clothes, doesn’t know what to say, so the king calls the security guards, who slap the guy around a bit and then throw him out into the parking lot, where we all know that men weep and gnash their teeth.

And Jesus says, "the Kingdom of God is just like that, many are called, but few are chosen."

That is the one barb at the end, that I have trouble with. A man comes to the wedding who isn’t wearing wedding clothes, and he is thrown out and then we are told that many are called but few are chosen.

Why?

St Augustine suggests that the reason was that the king has provided wedding clothes for all who came to the wedding banquet.

He has not only invited everyone to the feast but he has provided the clothes to go with it.

The man who was thrown out, was thrown out because he rejected the king’s festal robes.

Now, this is not my favorite parable. This isn’t even my favorite ’parable of the wedding feast’. There’s another version of this parable in Luke, where a lot less people get killed and beaten up.

Luke says ’Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame... Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’ (Luke 14:21-23)

The parable in Luke is told as part of Jesus’ explanation as to why he hangs about with so many social misfits. In Matthew though the parable is delivered as part of Jesus’ tirade against the establishment, and it is the third volley of a triple barreled shotgun.

In quick succession ,Jesus comes out with the ’parable of the two sons’ (one son who says the right thing and one son who does the right thing), ’the parable of the bad tenants’ (who refuse to pay the rent to the owner and end up murdering the owners son), and then this ’parable of the great party’ -where the party celebrations are set against this backdrop of violence.

"The Kingdom of God is like a party," says Jesus, but what sort of party is this? It’s a very serious party. It’s the sort of party that makes Hyacinth's dinner party look like a kegger. This is not the sort of party where you turn up when you like and come as you are. This is the sort of party where you turn up at the right place and at the right time and where you come dressed appropriately, and where, if you decide to stay home to work on your sermon, you do so at your own risk.

What sort of party is this? It’s a serious party. And perhaps the even more important question here is ’what sort of king is this who is throwing this party?’ And he seems to be a serious king, who in the end is going to demand people’s respect.

And there are lots of ways of getting on the wrong side of this king:

Ignore his party invitation. That will tick him off.
Murder his messengers. That will really make him mad.
Turn up to his wedding banquet dressed like a slob. That will work too.

And I’m sure we can think of other ways that we've seen people being rude at a party that would make him upset too.

There are plenty of ways of upsetting the king. There seems to be just one way of making him happy. Come to the party, and come on the king’s own terms.

A guy called David Randolph spoke about a time when he was in Milan, Italy, and was watching a circus parade moving through the streets. Suddenly one of the elephants veered off and marched into a church. The church doors were large, and were open because of the summer heat. So the elephant wandered up the aisle, trumpeted a bit, swung her trunk around and then headed back to the parade. Randolph said that it occurred to him at that moment, the extent to which his own spiritual life was embodied in the behavior of this elephant, lurching into church, making a few noises, and then resuming his place in the parade.

In the end, the Kingdom of God is serious business, and the invitation of the King, to come and join his party, is to be taken seriously.