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October 15, 2017

“A Wedding Banquet Gone Wrong”

Matthew 22:1-14

In looking back at my life over the decades as a musician and minister, I would estimate that I have performed at least 150 weddings, mostly as officiant and quite a few as a singer. That also means I have gone to a LOT of receptions. Here is a picture of our wedding day, June 20, 1987, and some photos of our guests at the reception hall, which no longer exists. The guests we invited were all family and friends from school and the Christian camp Paula and I worked at. Our reception went pretty well- no major hiccups along the way. However, they don’t always go smoothly.

Years ago, I performed a wedding in Mendocino on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. It was a windy day, and we go through the ceremony all right, but the reception was in a huge white tent erected near the bluffs. There were several times during the reception I wondered if the big tent would blow away or crumble due to the strong winds. On top of that, probably because of the concern about the wind and the couple being stressed out, I did not receive a check for the wedding.  (I didn’t feel it was appropriate to mention it to them, as they had enough going on) The food servers were going around with trays of appetizers and having difficulty standing up when a gust would blow through the tent. Sterno flames kept blowing out on the food warmers. Due to the weather, there were several problems at this reception.


That reception, however is NOTHING compared to this disaster of the wedding reception as described in Matthew. The parable tells the story of a wedding reception gone horribly wrong, and of course has a dual theological meaning. Presbyterian Outlook editor and church minister Rev. Jill Duffield calls this parable of Jesus, parabolus horibulous!  Let’s go through this difficult parable together and see how it may apply to our lives today.

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who invites people to a wedding reception for his son’s marriage.  He sends out his servants all over the city to invite his friends and subjects to be part of this special celebration. And this was no afternoon or evening dinner party- most wedding receptions in those days lasted an average of 7 days! But the people the King invites don't want to come. They are busy and have better things to do.  Undeterred, the king invites them again because he really wants them at the celebration. He tries to entice them with the menu for the feast. This time the people on the guest list not only refuse to come, they beat up and kill the ones the king sent to invite them. Then the king gets mad. (Who wouldn't?) The King goes ballistic and gets even, killing those who killed his servants who'd come with the invitation to the wedding party.  But the reception has been paid for, and the food is ready. The father of the groom will have a party and there will be guests, so he sends out the remaining servants to invite anyone and everyone they can find.  They come and feast away at a sumptuous banquet. But one unsuspecting guest doesn't dress appropriately and for some reason, the King gives that underdressed one the same treatment as those who refused to come at all. The one without the right robe is thrown into the outer darkness.   And the last line, or moral of the story: Many are called but few are chosen. Yikes. I did mention to you that I had never preached upon this parable before, and now you know why!


So what is the theological meaning behind this passage? Well, God is the king in the passage. But this isn’t your warm and fuzzy “God is love” image of God in scripture. This God kills the ones who killed God’s servants and then basically lays waste to an entire city in anger. (Huh? What about slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy?) The son of the king is Jesus. The servants sent out to invite everyone to the banquet are the prophets-Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Elijah- who were rejected, and sometimes even killed by the masses when they preached a return to the ways of God. They also are the disciples sent out to spread the message of Christ to others, who face rejection by both the religious leaders of the day and by the general populous. Those who reject the invitation in this story are mainly the Scribes and Pharisees, who do not agree with Jesus’ message, nor do they see him as Messiah. The destruction of the city hearkens back to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD by Roman troops.(Many Biblical scholars place the writing of Matthew AFTER this event) Christians at that time believed the destruction of the city was God’s punishment upon Israel for its rejection of Jesus and the gospel. The wedding banquet stands for two things- an invitation to follow Christ, and also a glimpse of what God’s banquet table looks like up in heaven. In Luke’s version of the story,(Luke 14:6-24) God invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Luke 14:21b) In Matthew’s version of the story God invites “Everyone you find, both the good and the bad.” The guests invited at the end of the parable represent the mission of Christ expanding beyond the Jewish nation to include Gentiles- those outside the faith. The good and bad also remind us that as Christians, we are far from perfect, and invited to the banquet solely because of God’s grace. As Paul reminds us in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”


Then there is the troubling story of the hastily invited guest who shows up without a wedding robe and is thrown into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That seems hardly fair. After all, wasn’t it the King who told his servants to bring in everyone they could find right off the street? What difference then does it make as to how one is dressed? What theological significance is there behind this section of the parable?


Theologian Douglas Hare believes the garment represents Jesus’ teachings. “The guest without the robe accepted the invitation to follow the gospel, but refused to conform his life to the gospel.” So, God wants more than good attendance on Sunday mornings or lip service. God wants a change of heart when we choose to call ourselves “Christian.” Theologian Juan Carlos Ortiz wrote, “Christian discipleship is more than getting to know what Christ the Teacher knows. It is getting to be what he is.”


This poorly dressed disciple also connects to the final verse- “For many are called but few are chosen.”  He was one of many called to the banquet, but he didn’t make the grade. It reminds me a bit of when churches used to be bursting at the seams.  Some of you remember those days particularly in the 1950’s when going to church on Sunday was part of the cultural norm. It is just what you did, what was expected. As a result, Sunday school classes were HUGE. Many were called, many came, but few stuck with the faith- that is few were chosen-few lived out and lived by that faith or we would still have huge thriving churches today.


So there are two take aways for today. The first one is that God has invited us, and that invitation has strings attached. When we accept the invitation- when we call ourselves Christian and attach ourselves to Jesus, we are expected to live that faith out in word and deed, both here in the life of the congregation, and outside those doors as we enter out into the world.


The second take away for us is this- Who do we invite to the table? Who do we invite to participate in our faith, to join us in the life of the church? God welcomes all to the banquet table-“Good and bad”. Do we take the invitation seriously? Who have we invited to our table here in church? We had a Bring a friend Sunday back on September 24. Did we reach out to our friends? Did we invite others to the banquet? I seem to remember we pretty much had the same folks sitting in the pews as we had the Sunday before.

We state on our web site that “We believe that each individual is of sacred worth. We pledge ourselves to engage in the sacred hospitality and responsibility Christ taught us. We commit ourselves to maintaining a place of safety and sanctuary for all races, cultures, ages, sexual orientations, family structures, economic situations, and mental or physical conditions. Through the grace of Christ we dedicate ourselves to live out these commitments creatively, lovingly, humbly and with hope.” That is a beautiful statement, and demonstrates God’s call to welcome all. Do we live it?  We say we are open and inclusive…What about the LGBQT community? Yesterday a few of us marched in the Gay Pride parade. That shows some support of that community. But have we reached out to them in some way and invited them to come to church or to a church function? What about the Homeless, many of whom face severe economic situations, and mental conditions? We have our Monday night shelter starting up, and our community dinners, and we are thankful for that ministry. Yet, would we welcome them to sit next to us in a pew or join us for coffee or fellowship after worship? What about the folks who live in our neighborhood in the Mobile Home units across street? Or the ones who live in Apartment complexes right by us, or in student housing for SOU?

God wants us to take the invitation seriously, and to invite EVERYONE to the table. It is not an easy thing to do by any means. It is much easier to invite folks like us, rather than those who are different. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." We are segregated by economic standing, cultural background, race, and sexual orientation. God calls us to a diverse tapestry of color and ethnicity- a table where all people are welcomed and embraced. We clearly have work to do. All it takes is a heartfelt invitation.

I will close with a wonderful example of that invitation, and it is a true story regarding a reception which initially went horribly wrong, but in the end was truly righteous.  Sarah Cummins was supposed to get married on June 17 of this year. The 25-year-old Purdue University pharmacy student had been planning her dream wedding for two years, scrimping and working overtime to save for the $30,000 extravaganza. A week before the wedding and reception were to take place, she called it off (she prefers not to say why) and was left with a broken heart and a nonrefundable contract for a venue and a plated dinner for 170 guests on a Saturday evening at the Ritz Charles hotel in Carmel, Indiana.

"It was really devastating to me. I called everyone, canceled, apologized, cried, called vendors, cried some more, and then I started feeling really sick about just throwing away all the food I ordered for the reception," she said. 

Then she decided to bring some purpose to her pain. She worked with the event planner to re-arrange the reception area, then started contacting homeless shelters in Indianapolis and inviting shelter residents to her party. She and her mother arrived early to set up the centerpieces they designed themselves — gold Eiffel Tower vases with roses. 

Dayspring Homeless shelter and day center director Cheryl Herzog said, “Being homeless is stressful for an entire family. Having the chance to experience a delicious meal with your family in a beautiful space like the Ritz Charles was very special for them."

Sarah didn’t just call the center and invite them. She reached out in love, and arranged for buses to pick up shelter residents and families that afternoon to take them to the Ritz Charles. She ended up serving about 170 people- homeless families, single men and women, seniors, drug addicts and drunks-guests from off the streets, both good and bad.

On the menu were bourbon-glazed meatballs, goat cheese and roasted garlic bruschetta, chicken breast with artichokes and Chardonnay cream sauce and, yes, wedding cake. She stayed for the dinner with her mom and two bridesmaids, and personally welcomed each guest as they arrived.

The onetime bride-to-be said, "I will at least have some kind of happy memory to pull from. I've worked so many weekends and so much overtime to pay for this, I wanted to make sure it would be the perfect wedding.” It wasn’t the perfect wedding, but it was the perfect wedding banquet in God’s eyes.

God welcomes all to the wedding banquet, and calls us to do the same. May we reach over the walls of division, so that this banquet looks like the one we will see one day in heaven- where ALL of God’s children are around the banquet table. Alleluia! Amen

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