You Are Invited
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 9, 2011
Matthew 22: 1-14
I threw a party once. It was my own birthday party, my 15th birthday party. Having a birthday in early October meant that my birthday invitations were always delivered in the first weeks of school, an opportunity not only to gather old friends but to make and invite new ones. It was supposed to special. I wanted it to go well. It was an unmitigated disaster.
A little context is necessary: I grew up in a neighborhood full of kids of just about every age. But my immediate peers and friends were exclusively boys. All the girls in the neighborhood were the age of my little sisters and younger, or they were old enough to babysit me, and most of them did. So when, during my first summer as a high school student, my next door neighbors sold their house and moved away, you can imagine there was great excitement when the news got out that the new family who would be moving in had four daughters, and one of them was my age.
Now, maybe it was because I liked the idea of dating “the girl next door,” or because I was told the family was “French,” or just because I had entered high school with the desire to have a girlfriend, but I set my sights on ‘loving my neighbor.’ And this set up a new dynamic among my friends. Whether the boys I had grown up with had the same idea I did, or saw what I wanted and so wanted it too, or – and this is a real possibility – maybe it was all in my head, but as the new school year began my friends became my rivals.
On the evening of my party, all my friends in the neighborhood came, as did my new neighbor. We had a feast of pizza from Aurelio’s, one of the premier pizza makers in the Chicago area, and were listening to music in the den, when I needed to go to the bathroom. So I left the room. We still had our cake to eat. That was when my rival, at least I thought of him that way, that was when Rusty thought it would be a good idea to take my gifts and all my friends and leave. You know, just “hide” outside somewhere so they could have a good laugh when I came out and said, “Hey, where did everybody go?” Now I was probably in the bathroom longer than expected, and was a bit embarrassed by that. And I suspect my friends waiting outside in the dark had also grown embarrassed, both by what they were doing and by the lengthening of their time in the dark. But when I finally came out, they were gone, really gone: off to another house, or back to their homes. Party over.
The next morning I found my birthday present from the girl next door, the “it” item of clothing in 1983, a brown Izod shirt with the little alligator on the chest, a gift that had “cool” written all over it – I found in laying in the mud behind my house. It took me weeks to work through the shame before I could wash it and wear it to school.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a party where “the expected guests are absent, and the most unlikely ones are present.”
Comparing God’s messianic reign to a banquet was a commonplace in Hebrew scripture. Psalm 107 speaks of the redeemed being gathered in from all the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, for “God satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry God fills with good things.” The prophet Isaiah said that “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isa 26: 5-8) This is the setting for all the trouble in our Old Testament reading today: a feast before God, on God’s holy mountain, but a feast gone wrong, really wrong, an unmitigated disaster, when someone thought it would be a good idea to make a calf.
Jesus used this image of a rich banquet, or a wedding feast, or an inclusive party in several parables, and apparently told this particular parable on at least one other occasion when he at ate the home of a Pharisee (see Luke 14: 15-24).
His point, on this occasion, is simple: God desires all people to sit together in the kingdom of God, to enjoy fellowship with one another and with God, and the invitation is open. But we may be surprised who shows up, and who doesn’t. Who runs away or is sent away. And why.
Last week Phyllis [the soprano soloist in our choir] sent me a poem which her sister in Paducah, KY had posted on her facebook page.
I was shocked, confused, bewildered As I entered Heaven’s door,
Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.
But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp–
The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.
Bob, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,
was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.
I nudged Jesus, “What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take.
How’d all these sinners get up here? God must’ve made a mistake.
And why is everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.”
“Hush, child,” He said, “They’re all in shock. No one thought they’d be seeing you.”
Jesus directs his banquet parable at the religious authorities, and its telling is part of the ongoing controversy and shifting allegiances in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week. Two days later he would be betrayed, and on the third day crucified. This is one of those parables of judgment.
On the surface it is a simple analogy: the kingdom of heaven is like a banquet, the king is God, the servants sent out with the invitation to the banquet are Moses and the long line of prophets; the invited guests who refuse to enter are the current authorities in Jerusalem who are at that very moment challenging and rejecting Jesus’ message of the present and coming kingdom. And the people brought in off the streets? They are that glorious community of marginal people, the poor, the sick, and the lame, who have responded to Jesus and cheered him into Jerusalem, good and bad alike.
But there is another edge to the way Matthew remembers this parable. I wish I could say that it is never too late to answer the invitation and come to the party, that the invitation is always open, that there is always time to change our mind. But there is an urgency created by the hyperbolic and extreme images.
There is much more to ponder in the parable. What about the excessive reaction of the invited guests, who mistreat and murder the messengers? What of the over-reaction of the enraged king, who destroys the entire city of those who dishonored him? What about that man-on-the-street who refused to put on the wedding garment provided for him by the king? Or the king’s reaction of having him cast out into the darkness?
Well like I’ve said before, Jesus parables were meant to make us think. Let me know what you make of them.
I take them to mean that we may well pass up our opportunity to join the feast, that tomorrow may, in an important way, be too late, that the moment to say ‘yes’ is now.
And those who miss out on the kingdom goodness? It is not because they have been excluded but because they would rather be out in the darkness than in the party with the other invited guests. They’d rather not dine with ‘those people.’ Now, what do you think? Would people really walk away from all the goodness God has to offer just because others are also invited to enjoy it?
Did you read about the Tennessee pastor who instructed his deacons to assault his gay son and his boyfriend when they tried to go to church last week?
Did you see the images of the well-dressed and folks in their tuxedos and gowns sipping champagne on a Wall Street balcony, mocking the protestors below who are calling for corporate accountability and an end to the rule of wealth?
As we acknowledge the death of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth this week at the age of 89, do you remember the fire hoses that beat down children as young as 6 who marched from the church sanctuary and into the streets of Birmingham?
Have you been following the anti-immigrant legislation that went into effect this week in Alabama, and the mass exodus of those, undocumented and documented, who no longer feel safe in the state?
According to Michael Joseph Brown, writing in True to My Native Land: An African-American Bible Commentary, the setting for the parable is
[This is] a royal wedding for which invitations are sent out to invited guests, probably people of status and privilege. The invitations also allow potential guests to find out who else was coming. If the right people were coming, all would come. If the right people were not coming, they would stay away. The excuses are indirect ways of signaling disapproval of the [King’s] dinner arrangements. Further, the king’s slaves are treated shamefully, an insult to the kings honor. Thus the response [according to Brown] would have been appropriate. The king now invites others – anyone the slaves can find – to the feast. This would have been a remarkable scene; people of different social status rarely ate together in antiquity. The idea of eating with someone “off the street” would have been unthinkable. The parable thus serves to highlight the inclusiveness of the Christian community; were slaves ate with masters, the rich and the poor sat at the same table.
Jew and gentile, male and female: such is the kingdom of God.
Last night our congregation held out first progressive dinner. Twenty-five of us had a moving feast in eight homes, experiencing the generosity and hospitality that is the very nature of God. We enjoyed one another’s company, a variety of food – some of us had the fun of trying dishes that were entirely new to our taste buds, and we enjoyed the blessings of God, not just here at the church but in the homes where we live. I had the most delicious, traditional Jamaican meal at Norma Smikle’s home. At our house Noelle made Italian mozzarella, tomato and red pepper salad as a part of the appetizers we had at our house. Folks, this is the kingdom of God; all of us, from our different backgrounds and cultures sharing who we are and what we love and what we eat with one another. Life together, together.
I did end up dating the girl next door for the next three years of high school, an outcome of working through what happened the night of my party. But I lost my friends, some for months, some for much longer. Just recently, Rusty and I caught up with one another for the first time since high school. We found each other on facebook, one of us asked if we could be friends, and the other said yes.