“Now go out to the street corners and invite everyone you see.” … “Friend,” he asked, “How is it that you are here without wedding clothes?” But the man had no reply.
-Matthew 22:9, 12
(Preached on Sunday, October 15, 2017)
We begin our short, three-week annual stewardship season on a festive note today. Jesus tells a story using the image of a wedding banquet as a way of helping us understand something of the Realm of God.
Weddings are a much bigger social deal in our world today than they were when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days you would have a pretty simple wedding in the sanctuary, and then go downstairs to the non-air-conditioned fellowship hall for a small cup of sticky-sweet punch, a little piece of flavorless white cake, and a few mixed nuts, served on an awkward cup and plate that were supposed to fit together. You would stand around and visit a few minutes in the afternoon heat and, relieved, get out of the heat and go home for some real food.
Today, weddings are huge productions, with receptions lasting long into the night. That is after months of planning and several pre-celebrations: the bachelor and bachelorette parties, the showers, the rehearsal dinner. And now there is usually a post-wedding brunch the day after before the bride and groom leave on their honeymoon!
But even these lavish affairs pale when compared to weddings in the ancient world. Those events sometimes went on for days, with singing and dancing and rituals that occurred in different places. And the wedding feast or banquet was a highlight! The host would pull out all the stops, providing lavish amounts of food and drink. The social world of the village was transformed during the time of the wedding. In a world filled with heavy labor from dawn to dusk just to survive, a wedding was a glorious opportunity to take a break from that life; to pause and experience the joy and beauty of the world and life that was possible if not frequently and regularly experienced.
So it makes perfect sense that the wedding feast is a good analogy for the Realm of God. God intends the world to be a realm of love, peace, joy, dignity, justice, inclusivity, freedom, security, health, abundance, and eternal life. It has the excitement of an ancient wedding feast – an upbeat atmosphere, people from across the community gathered together, joy, and overflowing food and drink.
According to the parable, the movement to the Realm of God is already underway. The story goes that when the banquet was ready the host sent out his servants to notify those who were invited that all was prepared and the time was now to come and celebrate the wedding. The church is a witness to this truth. In fact, the community of the church is supposed to embody the qualities of the Realm of God. And you are invited. As in the story, the host says, “Come, Come to the wedding banquet.” Join the movement to the Realm of God.
There are two unsettling parts to this parable though. The first is the idea that anyone would refuse the invitation. You did notice that the first guests invited sent back negative RSVPs? Who would do that? Well, I will get to that in a minute. More importantly, their action allows the host to present a greater truth about the Realm of God. That truth is that the Realm of God is a lavishly inclusive place!
When the original guests invited to the banquet refuse to come to the party the host does not just throw all the prepared food into the garbage and go off to sulk. No, the host sends out the servants to gather everyone and anyone they can find in the streets and bring them into the banquet.
This is a message our world desperately needs proclaimed! In a world where literal and symbolic walls are being constructed to keep people out; to restrict access to health care, to opportunity, to justice, to acceptance, to rights, people need to know God’s Realm is a different world. God’s Realm is a place where any person, of any race, class, language, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental ability, is welcome. God’s Realm, and the Church, is not just for “decent” people, or smart folk, or well educated middle class citizens. It is not a private club for those who publicly display no bad habits, live in well kept homes in respectable suburbs, and can return hospitality with generous aplomb. Prostitutes and pimps, gamblers and divorcees, those who are mentally ill and those suffering from AIDS, demoralized working poor and chronically unemployed, people with brown and black skin, alcoholics and drug addicts, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning folk along with heterosexual folk, are all welcome to come and share in the glorious life of the Realm of God.
The second unsettling part of the parable is the guest without the proper wedding clothes. This is an excellent example of why it is dangerous to take parables literally or to turn them into allegory, where each element represents part of the real world of God. The more helpful way to interpret parables are to seek to understand the point being made and to do that it is often important to understand how the first audience would understand what they were hearing. In the case of the wedding garment, when the early church folk heard that they would have thought of one thing: the baptismal garment. Baptism was not just a ceremony with words and water. It also placed the newly baptized into membership in a new way of ordering the world. This put the rest of one’s life in jeopardy in order to enjoy being at the wedding banquet. If you weren’t prepared to begin the process of allowing God to transform your life totally, to reorient your life to the love of God and the love of neighbor as the primary loves of your life, then you’d best not be there. At baptism, the one baptized would literally strip off their old clothes (symbolic of their old way of life), walk naked into the baptismal pool to be immersed and emerge from the waters naked like at birth to be given a fresh, new garment representing their new life as a follower of the way of Jesus.
The second part of the parable tells us that to be a follower of Jesus we should expect our lives to be changed. If we claim to know the love of Jesus and express the desire to be part of God’s Realm, but that claim does not produce a change in our values and actions, then something phony is going on. As followers of Jesus we are called to display in our deeds a different set of values and goals than those of the greedy, self-indulgent, egocentric, classist, tribalist world.
So, how does this connect to Stewardship? Stewardship – committing time, talent, and money to a community that witness to the Realm of God – is part of responding to the invitation to join the movement towards that Realm. Stewardship ties two things together. Stewards recognize God’s unmerited love for each and every person, and for all other created entities (animals and all the natural world). Stewards also recognize that God’s unmerited love calls for love of neighbor. This is who we are as followers of Jesus. We know we are beloved of God. What are we to do? We are to love in the generous way that God loves.
So this stewardship campaign is not trying to squeeze money out of your for the budget. This campaign is an extension of the invitation to “Come. Come be part of the movement to the Realm of God. Come help the world become more like a wedding feast.” When I say “Yes” to this invitation by making a serious commitment of time, talent, and money, something powerful begins to happen. I discover that my own, immediate world takes on more of the qualities of a wedding feast. I discover my life changed, and I discover that the Realm of God, the realm of inclusive, loving, caring, accepting, compassionate action, is really coming into being.
At the Florida Conference Annual Meeting yesterday, our Conference Minister, the Rev. John Vertigan, named all the various ways racism is pervading our nation and even our church. After his address to the body, he invited talk-back sharing in a Town Hall setting. One man, African-American, stood and expressed, with clear emotion in his voice, struggling with tears, his appreciation for John naming the realities he did and which that man worries about for his 14 year old son every day (his son was standing next to him). He thanked John and the United Church of Christ for providing “safe space” where he knew his son would be welcome and treated fairly and equally – which is extremely difficult for him to find in the rest of his world – in school, in society at large, in this nation. It was a moment where he had experienced the wedding banquet reality of the Realm of God and which he named for all of us gathered there.
The next to speak after this man was our own Lorrie LeGrand. She stood, and with strong emotion in her voice, called for us to have a larger platform to share our message about the inclusive and welcoming Realm of God with the world. She told how she was tired of needing to explain she was not that “type” of Christian because the wider world knows Christians primarily as negative, judgmental, gay-bashing, woman-suppressing, racist people. She reminded us that we have a powerful, much-needed message to proclaim to people like the man and his son who needs to know there is a place where they are valued and welcome for who they are, just as they are.
That is the mission we are engaged in at Christ Congregational Church. That is the purpose of our Media Ministry seeking to share our message of God’s inclusive Realm with the world. That is the mission worthy of stronger support from all of us with our time, talent, and money.