Think for a minute about the last time that you hosted a party at your house. Maybe it was just a small gathering of friends, or perhaps it was a large shin-dig, a celebration of some special event in your family, or an occasion that marked a birthday, an anniversary, a retirement, or a promotion. Do you remember how you prepared, how you may have fretted over every last detail, and then how those worries may have simply evaporated when you saw the joy on your guests’ faces? Perhaps you recall how surprised your loved one may have been to be the recipient of such extravagance and how you thought to yourself that it was all worth it – just to see your family together under the same roof and at the same table for a moment in time, however brief.
Today we have a parable regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus speaks a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven—comparing it to everyday things: mustard seed that grows beyond any expectation, a field of diverse kinds of seed all growing together, a sprinkling of yeast that makes all things rise, a treasure buried in a field that someone joyfully discovers and risks his livelihood just to own. Today, in Matthew’s gospel we find the Kingdom being compared not to a thing, but to an event—a wedding feast to be specific.
But, first, a word about Matthew. Just as our own opinions and biases creep in whenever we tell a story, Matthew has his own ideas about God, and his particular take on this story is tainted by his history, his time period, and his interpretation of events in his world. Thus, when he speaks about a king sending to troops to burn a city as if this were God’s doing, we should be skeptical of Matthew’s theology. Is this King being compared to God? Does a violent King who demands to have his ego stroked line up with what we understand about a loving God whose ways are measured by mercy and grace upon grace?
We remember that Matthew’s gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and that Matthew in his humanness sought a scapegoat for the destruction that he saw. And Kings and the governing elites were just as likely—then as now– to retaliate with violence when they were enraged or set to prove a point, whether legitimately or not. So this feast, though a wedding, has dangerous overtones and the subtext is what happens when a powerful person doesn’t get his or her way. What we know, and what Matthew’s hearers knew, is that guests of the King were expected to host the King at some later date. Kings demand to be catered to and if not, they take what they want by royal fiat or decree. I am not sure I would want a King in my home; I have enough trouble cooking for my own family, much less some powerful King and his entourage at the threat of fine, imprisonment, or death. In Matthew’s day, hosting a King could bring financial ruin or even bankruptcy. No, I wouldn’t want to host a King.
If you would like to see a slightly different rendering of this story, turn to the gospel of Luke, where the person holding the dinner party is a simply “someone,” rather than a King.
But, in Matthew, a King hosts a wedding feast for his Son. Weddings were a big deal then, as now. After the silverware was polished, the table set, and while the beef was still turning on the spit, the King sends out invitations to all his guests. But the first group of guests couldn’t be bothered. They “make light” of the feast, and turn to their affairs. Perhaps they didn’t want this invitation; perhaps this King wasn’t particularly gracious or kind as a powerful elite; perhaps the King’s invitation was forced and just a show to make him appear more loved than he actually was. And this King has a temper, remember? Enraged by the murder of his servants, he sends troops, burns down a city, and hands out the death penalty without mercy.
But let’s give the King a break and recognize that the invited guests were difficult and violent too. It seems those invited were too busy with their possessions to find time for fellowship. One turns to his newly purchased property and one turns to his business. Some of the other invited guests don’t even make excuses –they simply abuse and kill the King’s messengers for sport. They answer violent oppression with violence in return which doesn’t have a good end at all.
Now, in Luke’s version of the story, one of the invitees declines because he says he is newly married. Sometimes our primary relationships can poison or keep us from the outside world. The famous preacher George Buttrick once said, “a home becomes a prison if it has no windows opening on other homes and on the distant hills and the stars.” If we close ourselves off from the larger world, we tend to suffocate not only our loved ones, but ourselves.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in the busyness of our lives, that we deny ourselves the opportunity of joy. Our absorption in our homes or our business can prevent us from discovering a life that is based on something other than acquisition, achievement, or society’s standards of success. When we begin to make excuses for ourselves, we are actually making excuses to God, shutting ourselves off from possibilities that might grow, stretch, and enrich us.
A friend of mine had a mission—to count for herself how many times a week she answered, “I’m busy” to someone’s question, “How are you?” She suspected that her busyness had become just another convenient excuse not to engage, or worse, that she wore her busyness as a badge of honor. Her busyness had become her worth. She wondered what would happen if she were to stop being so busy. Would that mean she was less valuable or less worthy?
We might ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. Often newly retired persons or new parents will discover their self-concept changing in the face of very different priorities. Yet sometimes habit is our worse enemy. Fred Craddock once had a dinner guest in his home who spent the night. While Fred read the paper, his guest was on the floor laughing and teaching his kids a new game. He asked himself, “How long had it been since [I] came home from work and did the same?” Later, after dinner, his guest thanked Mrs. Craddock for such a wonderful meal. Fred tried to remember the last time that he had complimented his wife following dinner. He thought, “probably sometime in 1949.” Then, that same guest went outside for a walk and when he came back in, he said, “Oh those are nice folks next door. I met Mr.Yung and his wife from Seoul. Very nice young couple.” Well, Fred thought again to himself—“I had heard about some folks moving in, but didn’t know their first names.” Craddock writes, “[It’s] a familiar pattern: Come home, read the paper, and eat supper. Then here comes someone strange. Everything looks different, and I think, “where in the world have I been?”
Sometimes it takes an outsider or a stranger to help us to rethink were we’ve been and where we’re headed. When the first round of guests find other things to do, the King summons all manner of persons good and bad to attend the feast and fill the banquet hall. The guests who come are as diverse as God’s creation. But then one person comes who doesn’t appear dressed for the occasion—he lacks a “wedding garment.” Some believe that this was Matthew’s way of saying that he wasn’t personally prepared for the event. He had brought his physical body, but not his heart. He appeared to be engaged, but he kept himself at a distance.
“Friend,” his host questions, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Many of us have had the feeling of being either underdressed or overdressed for a party, but Matthew uses clothes as a metaphor. So often we come to God’s party underdressed. Sometimes we want something for nothing; sometimes we shy away from being involved in others’ lives; sometimes we fear risking ourselves. We may have known folks who show up at church for reasons that have nothing to do with God: to be seen, to impress others, to exercise power, or to settle old scores. They, according to Matthew, are like the guest without the wedding garment. When their trivialities can no longer provide sufficient anchor in the stormy seas of life, they, like the man without the wedding garment, will be rendered speechless. And out of that silence will come spiritual growth and new commitment.
Another possibility turns this whole story on its head as well as years of scholarly interpretation. Jesus’ parables do that. If the King is not actually God in the story and we have many reasons to believe that to be the case, then perhaps the King is, well, just another powerful elite or someone who rules by oppression. If so, then perhaps the wedding guest who shows up without a “wedding garment” represents someone like Jesus, or someone who has something to teach us about facing Kings who are petty and violent. The kingdom of Heaven comes closer when someone who is willing to stand up to the king doesn’t make excuses of why he or she can’t do so, but uses every event—even a wedding of a powerful elite, and even under duress, to quietly protest in ways one is able. This holy One refuses to stroke the King’s ego by flattery or self-deception or by the expected wedding garment. This brave person makes a quiet protest knowing all along that this might land him or her in hot water.
I am reminded of the singer Jordin Sparks who sang the National Anthem recently at a game between the Cardinals and Cowboys.* At this very public event, Sparks held her hand to the microphone while she sang. On her hand, the hand that held the mike, the hand that so many photos and t.v. cameras would visually show as they zoomed in on her singing, was written: “Proverbs 31:8-9.” The verse, if you should look it up, says:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
This was what Jordin Sparks wore to the very public invitation to sing for the masses. And she wore it beautifully while she sang our national anthem. She embraced a different king and a different way of being at the party.
In Matthew’s story, the King who is embarrassed gets violent because this one person fails to play by the social mores of the elite and powerful. If you don’t believe in a God that would toss out someone out of God’s party because of a righteous protest, then you can argue that Matthew is making a point about power and how to stand up to power run amok, even as we kneel to do so.
God wants our full participation and loyalty, but our God isn’t a petty tyrant. Perhaps the one without the wedding garment is the one who would not be clothed with forced allegiance.
Friends, this story comes to us just as we are about to issue our own public invitation as a faith community. On October 22nd, we will celebrate 60 years of ministry and mission at this church. We will celebrate in a public way, before all manner of witnesses. An Anniversary is an opportunity to look back in gratitude and to look forward in hope. It is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to our covenant with God and to celebrate the joy of being in covenantal community together. More importantly, it’s about our capacity to be both host and guest in God’s realm. Yes, we will be hosting a small celebration on October 22nd, modest but meaningful. We will make an extra effort that day to be present to each other and to those who come. Like the personal invitation that God extends to each of us, I am hopeful that we shall find ways to be and bring the Good News to any and all who might be listening for it, whether aching or curious.
Yes, we are hosts, but we are also guests. We are guests of the God who –despite our failings, our misgivings, our questions, our busyness, or our excuses—asks us leave behind our ties of entitlement, our hats of egoism, our cloaks of shame or sin, and our tendency to deal with trivialities, and invites us to enter into new relationship and a deeper more lasting joy. This God engages our compassion, who inspires us to strive for justice on behalf of those oppressed by elites, and who makes possible Heaven’s Holy Realm here on Earth.
God is having a party and we are invited. It began a long time ago at the beginning of time and reaches far into the future beyond our lifetime. Have you responded yet? If not, what is keeping you?
 George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 226.
 Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St.Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 27-28.