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1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
So, that was a horrible gospel reading, yeah?
Preacher everywhere have been performing CPR on this text all week, just to see if there is any life that can come out of this horror movie that Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven.
Let me say very clearly, if not only for our confirmands, but for you too, I do not know what this parable means. I don’t. And I know that for some of you that’s disappointing and disheartening to hear. But I firmly believe that a faith community is not a place that has all the answers. It’s a place that holds all the questions. Together. So to be part of this community, to be people of faith isn’t to understand and know everything for certain. This is why a little later, as we profess our faith with the Apostles’ Creed, after each article, we will say, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Because we don’t have all the answer, but rather to say we are willing to strive to live our life trusting the promises of God are true and at times that will mean significant wrestling and struggle with God and the Scriptures as to what that means for me.
Now, with that said, before we dive into this parable, there have been a handful of things this past week that have given me some perspective on Jesus’ parable and thus helped me sit with this difficult reading, rather than ditch it for the comfort of Psalm 23.
The first realization came from a children’s toy. Raise your hand if you have ever played with Legos in your life?
We are in Lego fever at our house. The Star Wars variety, if you’re curious. And for better or worse, many of the Legos these days come in prepackaged, pre-planned designs with instructions. And they are so frustratingly detailed, so precise that they make you search and search through the pile of 892 pieces on your carpet for the tiniest little accent piece. And then you find out that the piece belongs on the inside of the ship that no one will see anyways. But then when the whole thing is finished, you’re grateful for all the little accents and the detail.
The spaceship – it doesn’t need that little accent piece, but if you lose one piece you feel like something crucial is missing.
I guess that’s how I feel about that the parable this morning. If you could build an image of the kingdom of heaven out of Legos, this parable would be just one block of it. Preferably on the inside where no one will see it. You see, according to Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is not like one thing. It’s not just like this wedding banquet. But many things. Because there are just some things in the world that you cannot fully describe with words – like love or grief or the kingdom of heaven. And so we use stories and images as best we can. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s like yeast. It’s like a sower who scatters seed everywhere. It’s like treasure hidden in a field. Therefore, hear this: today’s parable doesn’t get to have the final word on God and Jesus. It is just one part of it. A part that I wish we could lose in the shag carpet of history. But I also believe that to do so, we’d be missing a little texture, a little shading that is actually meant to contribute something to the image of the unimaginable kingdom of heaven.
Another helpful reminder this week was that any time Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, I have to remember to unhook my assumption that this is about the afterlife. That it’s about what happens when we die. This is about the kingdom of heaven that is drawing near. It’s about what the kingdom of God on earth looks like…because that’s what we pray for every single week. Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it already is in heaven. We pray that it would come and replace all the other kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of oppressive governments, the kingdoms of wealth inequality, the kingdoms of powerful white men. Please, Lord, teach us about your kingdom here on earth. Teach us your ways. So, it’s not about the dress code to get into heaven. It’s deeper, and more necessary, and more immediate than that. It’s about God bringing about life here and now and what that looks like.
With those things in mind, I think we can be brave enough to ask the question: what truth is hidden in this difficult parable that I need to hear right now?
Now, when you’re dealing with a parable, I think the best thing to do is just walk around in it and start asking questions.
- Why did the first guests reject the king’s invitation to the party?
- Where did people get the wedding garment? Did they carry them around with them just in case? Did the king provide them and run out?
- Where is outer darkness exactly and how strong do you have to be to throw some one there?
- Who are the called ones and who are the chosen? Is the poor sap at the end the chosen one? Or are the people at the wedding the chosen?
- Where is the Son whose getting married in the midst of all of this? Better yet, where is the bride? Why doesn’t she ever show up on stage?
Scholars will disagree about what all of these things mean. Therefore people have interpreted this parable in all kinds of ways. They’ve said that Jesus or God is the one who gets thrown out because that’s what we do to a loving and forgiving God. Sometimes, I’ve wondered if God is not the other character in the story who is never seen – the bouncer at the door – who lets in people at the door who don’t not belong there and don’t have right clothes on.
But this week, all of those interpretations felt too easy. Like they were simply there to settle my own offense and discomfort with this story. And I was reminded this week to not disregard that which offends me. I was reminded to not be afraid of being offended but in fact to sit with it and wonder why I’m so bothered by what’s been said.
So, I wanted to try and take this parable at face value. What if God really is the king in the story. Now the whole thing is disturbing. In fact, it’s meant to be. Like a circus fun house mirror, everything is blown out of proportion and distorted. “Jesus’ parables are meant to disturb us. To wake us up out of our complacency and to ask hard questions about ourselves and about God.” But the hard question I wanted to ask is, “What if God really is the king in the story?”
So, there is this king. And his son is getting married and they’ve invited all these guests. And let’s be honest, we know what kind of guests – the upper crust of society, the elites. The powerful. A status many of us would hold from the world’s standards. But they don’t come. But this is a patient king and a generous one, so he sends more messengers out. But the guests – they make light of the King’s generous offer.
Has anyone ever made light of something that was really important to you? It’s devastating. They say their busy at their farm or at their work. Aren’t we all. And some even kill the messengers. You see, sometimes we’re so busy and so important and self-sufficient that offers of help and generosity only reveal just how desperate and in need of help we actually are – and we don’t like to admit that. So we decline the offer and kill the messenger.
Then the king sends troops and destroys the murderers and burns their city. What could this mean? Well, I wonder if the city represents everything that’s distracts them from joining in the banquet of the generous king. The city is the stadium for the rat race that keeps them busy and tired and numb and prevents them from living in the kingdom of heaven that is all around them. And so the king burns it down. So they can’t live that way anymore. In today’s language, maybe we would say he burns down the corporate ladder. So the people can stop scrambling over the tops of each other. It’s burned not to hurt the people but to ground them. Or maybe a modern day version is the guest don’t come because they’ve got so many emails. And so the king reaches in and takes the smartphone right out of their hand and burns it. And that will feel like being destroyed at first. But healing in the end.
God longs to take away or destroy that which distracts us from living in the kingdom of heaven that is all around us. Given to us by a generous and patient God.
So the king destroys the city. Now, the really ridiculous thing in this story is what happens next. Watch: the king changes.
The king who first opened the doors to some, now opens the doors to all. The king has become more generous in the midst of this offense. There is no way to be an elite now. The city is in ruins. There is no way to earn honor to deserve an invitation to the king’s wedding banquet. Now? Now, everyone’s invited. Every from the streets. And let’s not fool ourselves, we know who that includes.
That’s what should really offend us. That there would be a king so generous as to invite everyone off the street. The good and the bad. So, this kingdom of heaven – it’s not about morality. It’s not about are you good enough, have you earned enough points. You’re just invited.
But here’s the thing, when you arrive, you’re handed a wedding garment. Now, no one really knows what this is or how it worked. But to me this week, the effect of the wedding garment has felt a lot like the effect of a hospital gown.
Have you ever put on a hospital gown? There is never enough fabric, is there? That moment when the nurse politely says, “Please change into this gown and the doctor will be right in to see you.”
I don’t know about you, but as soon as that door closes, it feels like I’ve got 60 seconds tops on the clock before that door opens again. And my heart starts to race. Because I am certain that door is going to open, and I’ll be mid-pant leg.
But then you make it with time to spare. And you sit down on the butcher papered table, you stretch that fabric as far as it will go. You tuck all the edges in under your thighs just to insulate any dignity you had left.
And there you are. And suddenly it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO of big company or living paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t matter if you are smarter than everyone else or if you’re life has just been one failure after another.
It doesn’t matter who you were when you walked into the room, because now, you have been stripped bare and you are just like everyone else. Revealing a vulnerable somebody with a body that softens over time. Revealing a somebody worthy of but also in need of care.
The hospital gown. It is the great equalizer.
I’ve wondered this week if in the kingdom of heaven that is the wedding garment. It reveals who you and everyone else really are. That you belong to God and nothing more. It suddenly equalizes you with everyone else. All that stuff you bring with you from the city? It doesn’t count here. It’s been burned away.
And that? That bothers some of us. One preacher puts it this way: Maybe it is hard “to put on the wedding garment that everyone else (like tax collectors, and sinners, and prostitutes) is wearing too.” Sometimes it’s hard to celebrate the good news of God when you look around and see who else has been invited to the party. Sometimes we don’t want to be set free. And so we refuse to put on the wedding garment. Clinging to our false, yet more comfortable identity like an addict to their addiction.
And the king says well you can do it outside then. Because in the kingdom of heaven you’ll have to let go of all other identities for you and for others, except the identity: beloved.
Friends, Jesus is calling us out. On our making light of who we really are. And as a result, he is calling us out on our complacency and our apathy to the status quo. And there is love in that because it says that what you do matters. So, if you’re going to show up at a wedding, look like it. If you’re going to be people of faith in here, look like people of faith out there in the world. If you’re going to renounce the devil and evil and all the forces that defy God, like we will in a moment, then renounce evil out there! Because if we trust who we really are, it will affect how we live.
We are loved so that we can love. We are forgiven so that we can forgive. We are set free so that we can set other free.
And that will cause us to change. So by the grace of God, let’s change. And there is so much in the world that needs changing right now, but here are just some that are alive in me right now. Let’s stand against racial and gender inequality. Let’s stand against the sexual abuse and harassment that we’ve allowed to fly just under the radar in this culture. Let’s stand against health care offered only for some and not for all. Let’s stand against destroying the earth one gallon at a time. Why? Because God does. Those ways of being, those articles of clothing cannot be worn in the kingdom of heaven. They belong in the piles of ashes back in the city.
May we have the courage to have faith active in love. And may we bless these new people in this community and these Confirmands who will help us along the way. Amen.
 I was helped by a sermon by Kara Root on this point. Found here: http://kara-root.blogspot.com/2015/03/not-good-time-for-party.html
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A, a Working Preacher Resource.