A few years ago some friends of ours were celebrating what must have been their 30th wedding anniversary with a big bash in the barn at Hale Farm and Village. Hale Farm is a historical reconstruction kind of place where you can see how crafts and farming were done in the early days on the Ohio frontier; it’s a place which school groups often visit and it’s right on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, sort of near Akron. My friend Marcia is the executive director of a small nonprofit organization that does a lot of its outdoor teambuilding work in the park and so it was a natural that she and her husband would celebrate their anniversary down there.
The party was on a Sunday night and I planned my entire week-end around it. Sunday evening, just about this time of year, my husband and I made the hour drive down there and – the place was completely empty. No one anywhere at all. We wandered around a bit and finally ran into a caretaker, who wondered what we were doing. I explained that we were looking for the anniversary party and she said, “That was last night.”
So I stood there in the road and called my friends, and got Marcia’s husband Lester on the phone, and I said, “We’re out here at Hale Farm for your party.” And he said, “That was last night.” And then he said, “You missed a great party!"
Well, probably all of us have party stories like that, events where we’ve totally missed the boat. (Or maybe not? Maybe I’m the only one who does that?) And here we have one of those stories in the Bible.
What do we make of this one? The narrative itself makes sense, but the ending does not. It does not seem to reflect our experience of a loving God who longs to gather us all into the Holy Presence. Many are called, but few are chosen; what does that mean? Some people want it to mean that only some are saved – but is that what we really think it means? I think that on the question of who saved, we are better off sticking with the words of the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth, who says we don’t know, it’s a mystery, but we can certainly hope that all will be saved. And as the apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. So that question of salvation – it’s a mystery.
Of course, this story of Jesus’s, it’s a parable, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it generates some confusion. Parables are designed to provoke questions. They’re intended to make us think, and wonder – and hope. The definition of parable, the word it comes from, means “to cast alongside, to throw alongside.” In other words, a parable offers us a story, but then it also offers us another implicit story alongside the literal one, a story to help us wonder about and seek God.
What do we know and understand for sure about this story? For one thing, in the ancient world, it was traditional for two invitations to be issued to a grand party. The first one would come out well in advance, so that folks could plan their schedules and so that the host would know how many to expect. The second would be issued the day of the feast itself; the host’s servants and slaves would go from street to street, calling out reminders and urging people to make their way to the event.
For a second thing, this metaphor of a feast – we’re familiar with that. God’s idea of God’s kingdom is a lavish, sumptuous banquet to which all are invited. We’ve seen it long ago at the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus’ first miracle is a Eucharistic one in which he turns water into wine and saves the wedding; we’ve seen it as recently as last week’s World Communion Sunday. Actually, we saw it yesterday morning, at our own pancake breakfast. God loves a party!
But sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that God behaves as the king in our story does at first – that God invites only the “worthy” guests. The worthy in this parable appear to be the wealthy, the landowners, those of high status – not so different from the kind of invitation list we might expect to see in our own time, perhaps for an occasion like last spring’s royal wedding – a list that includes the dignitaries, the politicians, and the celebrities.
But if we know anything at all about God’s kingdom, it’s that things are topsy turvey; the first and the last are always confused.
In this case, the so-called “worthy” cannot be bothered to show up. Not so different from today – although today the problem is getting people to respond at all to an RSVP. But sometimes people say they’ll come and they don’t – and we’re hurt and insulted, aren’t we?
So what does the king in the parable do? When his honored invitees don’t show up?
He invites everyone – everyone! – in off the street. Rich, poor, good, bad, esteemed citizen, common criminal – all are invited.
Now this king is starting to sound more like God. Because God likes surprises, and God likes to welcome the unwelcome: the poor, the weary, the lost, the sick, the confused. And God likes to invoke gratitude.
Imagine: You are wealthy, successful, well-dressed, accepted everywhere you go – if you are invited to a major social event. You might think: Of course. Maybe I’ll go; maybe I won’t. But of course they want me.
Imagine: You are poor, out-of-work, down-and-out, seldom noticed generally overlooked – and you’re invited to Will and Kate’s wedding in Westminster Cathedral. How do you feel? Grateful? Humble? Excited? Easy to imagine the new guests in the parable, isn’t it? Dancing in Westminster Cathedral – running to the feast.
But -- we are left with one problematic fellow in this story: The guest with no robe.
Now I have another personal party disaster story for you:
When I was about eight years old, I was one of three little girls invited to the birthday party of a fourth. A summer afternoon party, in a southwestern Ohio town not unlike Nankin (although with 2,000 people, it was actually five times as big!). I was planning to wear a pair of shorts and a summer blouse; I thought we’d mostly be playing out in the yard.
At that time of my life, my grandmother was in charge of my social life. My mother had died and my grandparents lived next door, and so my grandmother took care of the little girl things that were a bit beyond my father. Now I adored my grandmother – she was one of the most important people in my life and died only a few years ago, at the age of 100 – but she was a but old fashioned, and she informed me me that I would be wearing dress-up clothes to that party. I protested mightily, but she told me that it was a young ladies’ party and that I needed to dress appropriately. So off I went, in my little dress and crinoline petticoat and Mary Jane shoes – and of course, I was right. Everyone else was wearing shorts.
I was so embarrassed – but I managed to take care of the situation. I “accidentally” – and I promise, it was really was an accident! Or was it? Anyway, I toppled into the birdbath in my friend’s backyard, which meant that I got completely soaked, and her mom had to lend me some playclothes.
It mattered to me, as it probably does to you, that I be dressed appropriately. It seems more difficult now than it did a long time ago, doesn’t it? Decades ago, you knew what to wear to an event; now it’s not always so clear. But we all want to wear the right thing. We want to dress up when that’s what we should do, and we want to wear jeans when that’s what everyone else is wearing.
Not this last fellow in our story, though. He doesn’t seem to care at all.
Now what’s a wedding garment? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m thinking that it’s something that makes a guest look and feel appropriate. As you all know, I used to teach in a Jewish school, and several of my students have gotten married recently. I’ve seen their wedding pictures on Facebook – weddings in New York, weddings in Jerusalem. The brides are wearing traditional white gowns and the grooms are wearing dark suits – except that for the wedding itself, the groom wears a knee-length, long-sleeved white coat. A wedding garment.
In ancient times, such a garment would have been provided by the host. The wedding guest would not have had to worry about the cost or about having just the right thing – that was the host’s problem. So why doesn’t this fellow put on the appropriate attire?
Do we sometimes do this to ourselves? Do we sometimes disqualify ourselves from the experience of what is good and true and beautiful? Do we sometimes think that we cannot possibly measure up?
Do we sometimes un-choose ourselves?
How do we clothe ourselves for the feast that is God’s kingdom? Better yet, what does God offer us, so that we might be dressed appropriately?
The apostle Paul gives us some hints: “Whatever is true,” he says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
THAT’s how we dress for the feast of the Lord. Those are the wedding garments our host offers us: truth, honor, justice, purity – those are the things which are pleasing, commendable, and excellent. Big words: truth, honor, justice, purity – we could spend a sermon on each of them – and maybe someday we will! But for today, let’s recognize: Those are the clothes worthy of praise. When we are called to the wedding feast, those are the garments we are invited to accept. When we are called, we should show up, and we should accept the beautiful wedding robes prepared and waiting for us.
God is looking for us, calling out to us in the streets, sending messengers after us. God is throwing the doors to the kingdom wide open, setting a lavish table for us, and urging us to see and hear the most wonderful thing of all: God wants to call each of us, God wants to choose each of us, and God longs to garb us in the robes of the kingdom.
Amen and thanks be to God.