I love the TV show Friends. I love watching it…I love quoting it with my friends…and I love reliving episodes. In fact I really enjoy an episode, where Joey, the goofball/nutty one of the group, is in London. He has this huge ridiculous 3D map and he is trying to figure out where he is in London, but when he can’t figure it out, he turns to his pal Chandler and he says, “I know, I’m going to have to go into the map.” So he puts the map on the ground and steps on it, placing himself in the map of London so that he can find his way.
Our text this week has me feeling the same way. I just can’t figure out where I am or what’s going on in this story. But I think the only way into a text like this is to remember that for Jesus, this is a parable. Which means it is sort of like riddle. The answer isn’t meant to be obvious but it has to sit with you until you have that “ah-ha” moment. Or as one preacher once put it, a parable is “not a once-and for-all story. It’s a story you can walk around in, a story that wants a response from you—hopes for a response from you—one that changes as you change, so that it is different the tenth time you hear it than it was at the first.” (Barbara Brown Taylor).
So today…we’re going to have to go into the map. Like Joey, we have to step into this story so that we won’t feel so lost. To step into the story, walk around in it, feeling for the walls and the furniture, looking behind closed doors and under the tables, becoming the characters in the story. All so that we might encounter its mysteries and find our way through it.
So let’s do that. Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and chief priests for some time now and he decides to throw another parable their way. There once was a king. Which right off the bat makes me wonder, is this king supposed to be God in the story? Hold on to that question. This king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. Things are getting ready and prepared for the party. It happening at one of the best venues, it’s just over here at the Four Seasons building on the Fair Grounds. Cooks are getting the food prepped, other staff are organizing the tables; “save the date” cards have already been sent out, and are hanging on people’s refrigerators. Everyone knows about the event. Everything is just about set, and all that is needed are the guests. But this king is so rich he can send his own messengers to personally escort the guests to the event.
So these messengers go out to these folks on the A list to inform them that all is ready. We know who was invited to such a royal event – governors and senators, CEOs and celebrities. Who knows maybe people like Brad and Angelina, or Justin Beiber were on the list. Either way, whoever it was, they apparently didn’t want to come to this wedding banquet because they all turned the messengers away. I wonder why? Do they not like the king? Do they not like the king’s son? So after that happened, then the king sends out more people to go out get these guests. He says, “Tell them what’s on the menu, maybe that will help.” I mean people will come to just about anything as long as there is food there, right? The king’s got delicious pulled pork and beef skewers with a little splash of peanut sauce on them, but still nobody wanted to come. Some made it seem like they had work to do; yet, others made themselves real clear… they killed those messengers. They really, really don’t want to go to this wedding. Enraged and furious, this king goes and wages war on these ungrateful invitees, destroying their homes and their cities.
Once the king is back at the banquet hall, having washed the blood off his hands and from the front of his tux, he tells his messengers to just go invite anyone off the street, anyone – good or bad – who will come to this banquet, eat the food and fill the wedding hall with guests. This wedding banquet must go on! Which has to make you wonder….what kind of preservatives is this king using in his food? I mean seriously, the pulled pork and beef skewers were ready at the beginning of the story, and since then the king has sent out two sets of messengers, waged a couple of wars and burnt down a couple of cities. How long does this food last? You’d think it would cold and spoiled by now. Anyways…people from all over start flooding to this banquet. Think about it, how often do the regulars from off the street ever get to eat with the king? Never!
So farmers are jumping off their combines, men and women in suits are running out the doors of Federated, workers are coming out of Jostens, the homeless leave their park benches, construction workers are dropping their tools. Nursing home residents, bank staff, hair stylists, bartenders…everybody is going to this banquet. And now the wedding banquet is up and running. The bar is open; the dance floor is full. Trays of food are being passed around. Everything is going great until the king notices one person in jean shorts and a tank top – certainly inappropriate attire for such a royal wedding.
Suddenly the music comes to a screeching stop, conversation quiets, and everyone turns to looks at this underdressed man. Which then makes me wonder, what was everyone else wearing? I mean they came off the streets and straight from work too. The text says they had on wedding robes. Did the king provide these and this one person just decided to disrespect the king by not wearing one or did everyone else carry their wedding robes around in their back pocket and purses waiting for this day when they win the lottery, getting to go to a royal wedding? Whatever the case, this guy didn’t have a lot to say for his attire and so the king continued his pattern of violence by having this guy thrown out into the darkness of the night, left to walk alone back to whatever it is he calls home. The end.
When you walk around in a parable, you see all of these threads hanging down that you can start to pull on. Maybe you wonder who the king is supposed to be? Or why the invited guests do not want to come? Perhaps you are drawn toward the fact that this food must have been kept under a heat lamp for quite sometime. Or maybe you see yourself as one of the characters in the story, like a guest invited off the street, or one of the guest who turned down the king’s invitation. Heck, maybe you saw yourself as the bride. Which by the way, where was she? Where is the bride during this whole story? It’s hard to have a wedding story when one partner is missing. You can take any of these threads and start pulling on it to open up this parable but the thread that catches my eye the most is this poor character who wore the wrong clothes to the wedding banquet. Who is this guy? The reason he catches my eye is because I think all of us can relate to him. We know the feeling of being rejected, or at least the fear of being rejected.
In the fall of my sophomore year of high school, I was watching a school soccer game and just as the game was ending, a friend came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you going to Claire’s house after the game?” Immediately, my stomach sunk. I hadn’t heard that Claire was having people over to her house, and so I had to give this painful response, “Oh, ummm….no, I’m not. I wasn’t invited.” To which he awkwardly said, “Oh, um, sorry,” and then jumped down the bleacher stairs to join everyone else who were headed to the party. Riding in the car with my parents home that Friday night, one of the darkest nights of my life, feeling completely rejected. Over the next month or so, I noticed my friends didn’t call me as much. I also started sensing an awkward feeling whenever I tried to join my group of friends in the hallway or at lunch. Eventually, it became clear: these friends had decided that I was too annoying or too whatever that they didn’t want to be friends anymore. And so I was left alone. Cast out into the darkness of life to blindly search for new friends, a feeling that too many middle school and high school students know so well.
I share this story because I think we all know what it feels like to be this guy at the wedding banquet. Though our stories are different, each of us know the feeling of being rejected and thrown out. Mine happened when I was a sophomore in high school. When was yours? Perhaps you know the deep ache of rejection that comes from not being touched by your spouse in months or years. Others of us know the rejection and isolation of living alone with an illness, where no one comes around anymore because they just don’t know what to say. Or perhaps some of us here know how rejecting it can feel to lose a job and then struggle to find work. I am drawn to this man who is thrown out into darkness because so many of know how dark life can get. Which begs the question: does this mean that we are that man in this story?
Maybe…but what if the man who has been thrown into outer darkness is God? Psalm 23 reads, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.” This psalm speaks of a God who meets us in the valley of darkness and leads us through it. And the only way for God to know the way through is if God had already gone through it God’s self. What if the man in this story who has been thrown into outer darkness is God? For it is God who goes into darkness before us so as to find a way through it. It is God who goes to the cross and finds a way through it. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, it is God who meets us there. God knows away through the darkest valley of rejection because God has already been cast out into the darkness and found a way through it.
Let’s read together Psalm 23 so that it imprints on our hearts, so that it washes over us, and so that we just might be able to believe again in God who goes with us on this journey.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Just as we have gone into this story to feel our way around it, to get a sense of what is there, we find that in Jesus’ parable we hear the story of one who has gone into the darkness ahead of us. One who has felt out all of the sharp corners and steep ledges, one who has discovered the pathways of this dark valley so that when people like you and I encounter dark valleys of rejection in our own life, there might be a hand for us to hold and shepherd us on through.