Sunday, October 15, 2017
Just this week in the mail I got invited to a reception here in Omaha for the new president of Augustana University, my alma mater. I scanned the invitation quickly getting ready to throw it into the recycling when a line caught my eye: “Free drinks and appetizers.” “Hmmm,” I thought. “Maybe I can fit that into my calendar.” To be honest, it doesn’t take much these days to get this busy working mom out of the house for an hour or two to enjoy adult conversation and FREE adult beverages and food uninterrupted. Now, there are a lot of other reasons I want to go – I love my school and want to support it, it’s a chance for me to see former college friends and meet other alumni, and I can meet this new president to learn more about how she’s leading the university towards a strong future. Here’s another thing, though. I know one unstated reason they’re inviting me and other alumni to this event, enticing us with free food and beverages: they want money, and they want me to continue to give money to support Augustana’s future, too.
There’s “no free lunch” as they say for most things in this world today. An invitation to a party like the one we hear about in the gospel today usually expects something of us in return: for an alumni event, a donation to the school; for a dinner party, a gift for the host, perhaps a bottle of wine or loaf of bread, for a wedding, a card and a gift for the newly weds. The stated reason for the invitation is to celebrate, to have a party, but there are often unstated social expectations of give and take that require some kind of commitment from the guest: time, money, a deepening of a relationship.
The thing that is different about Jesus’ parable in talking about the kingdom of heaven like a wedding banquet is that God our King doesn’t appear to expect anything from us other than to show up – to accept the invitation. No Target gift registry, donation request, or even link to RSVP is included. “Come to the wedding banquet,” is all the king says in his invitation. What’s even more interesting is that the king doesn’t really give an explanation of WHY he’s hosting this banquet, other than that it’s a wedding banquet for his son. The historical interpretation of this parable is that God is the King and Jesus is his son. The church is the bride. The wedding banquet then isn’t just for guests to attend, it’s for guests to be a part of as WE are the church! We’re getting married…to Jesus! It’s not a perfect analogy and it can be a bit confusing – parables are not meant to be fully explained or understood. In fact, one commentary on this passage I read this week said that this parable should come with a disclaimer: “For theologically mature audiences only.” But as you read through this parable again, how does it change your understanding if you see yourself not just as the invited guest, but as a part of the bridal party itself? What does it mean then if we don’t show up – if we leave Jesus standing at the altar alone? And what about our investment or commitment to this wedding banquet if we’re not just a guest bringing a gift, but a partner in the marriage relationship itself?
I’d like us to hear this challenging passage from Jesus both as radical grace and love for us from God and also a powerful call to deep relationship and commitment. One of the gifts or some could say curse of Lutherans is that we believe two opposite things can be true at the same time – a paradox. In this case, nothing is required of us and everything is required of us all at the same time. So first of all, this parable is about God’s grace. God invites everyone into the kingdom of heaven, regardless of age, race, class, political orientation, etc. Matthew says both good and bad, all whom they could find are invited. God does not discriminate or judge based on what you do or don’t do to “get into” the kingdom of heaven. All are welcome, no exceptions.
The other side of this parable, however, is to recognize that God calls us all to participate in the kingdom of heaven in an intimate personal relationship with Jesus similar to a marriage. This is why I think Jesus includes the poor guy without a robe who gets thrown into the outer darkness – he’s there, but he’s not really THERE. Matthew tells us that when the king asks, “how did you get in here” he is speechless. To me, this is an indicator that this guy is out of relationship with God the King and his son Jesus – he can’t even come up with anything to say to God for why he’s there but not wearing a robe. This is not a parable instructing us to only come to church in our Sunday best. This is not about wearing the right clothes, it’s about being in right relationship. As a pastor, when I marry people I require premarital counseling as a part of the wedding preparation. I remind couples over and over that the wedding is only the beginning of what we all hope will be a lifelong journey of mutual commitment, sacrifice, joy and sorrow. In premarital counseling, we work on healthy communication as the foundation of a good marriage. Without communication, there is no relationship.
Too many of us in the church look at our relationship with Jesus like it’s just about the wedding and we forget about the marriage. We talk about “going to church” as if church is a just a building, or just a time of worship on Sunday morning. Maybe even worse, we think about “church” as an hour of time we give God a week to prayer, worship and Bible study…the rest of the week is ours to do with whatever we please until we remember to think a little bit about God again the next Sunday…or the next Christmas or Easter or time we really get into trouble and need God’s help. Some of us say a little prayer to Jesus asking him to save us, think, “Alright, that’s it, I’m going to heaven, check that off the list,” and go on with our busy lives as if nothing else has changed. We relate to Jesus as if we’re just guests periodically at a wedding for someone else rather than treating this whole Christian life as OUR marriage with God. But WE, people who love God and are connected to Jesus, are the church. We are the church! The wedding banquet – Sunday worship – is just a piece of what it means to belong to God in the kingdom of heaven. And we don’t have to, in fact we shouldn’t – wait until we die and get to heaven to work on growing closer to God in Jesus Christ.
I want to be clear – there’s no prescribed amount of Bible reading, prayer time, worship and service hours that God requires of us to be saved. God saves us in Jesus Christ regardless of what we do or don’t do. Good or bad, God welcomes all into the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, for those of you who are married, previously married, or have some experience with long-term relationships, I can’t tell you how many hours a day to spend with your significant other or exactly what kinds of things you can do to have a good relationship. I do know, though, if you’re not talking or listening to each other, if you aren’t even showing up or if you’re physically present but mentally somewhere completely different, that ain’t a relationship. God loves you and wants to be in relationship with you. God wants to use you and work through you NOW to make a difference here on earth just as it is in heaven. God wants to change your life for the better – all you have to do is show up, be present, talk to God, listen to God, in whatever ways you find develop a healthier relationship. You don’t have to wait to be in a church building or for worship on Sunday. This is just the celebration of what God is already doing in us and through us. So let’s go to the banquet, and let’s celebrate the marriage. Amen!