A wedding invitation arrives in the mail. You are cordially invited to your second cousin’s once removed daughter’s wedding…in Toledo. Travel is expensive these days, and you are busy, so you send your regrets and a card wishing them a long and happy marriage, still wondering exactly how you are related. Now imagine the next wedding invitation is to the Royal Wedding. There must be some mistake, but who cares! Others will have to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton on TV. You are wondering whether you get to sit by the Duke of York, or maybe Sting, Bono, or at least JK Rowling. Who cares if you can’t afford it right now, your boss will have to understand that you need time off, because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
If you get an invite to the royal wedding, you go. It’s a no-brainer! So what is up with people in this parable? They get a personal invitation to a royal wedding, and don’t even RSVP. Now the night before the wedding the king invites again, because he has prime rib for 500 people, Nora Jones and Michael Buble are signing at the reception, and you should see the cake-a lemon curd sponge cake with Fortnum & Mason’s signature jams inside, decorated with pink hydrangea petals. Do I really have to beg people to come? Are these people so jaded by over the top weddings that the champaign-glass fountain feels like trail of tears? The first absurdity of this parable is that sane people do not refuse to go to royal weddings because they have stuff to do.
Apparently “hell hath no fury” like a spurned wedding planner. Send out the troops, burn down the city. Think Bride-zilla commanding legions. What kind of madman overreacts like this? If you enjoyed watching “I, Claudius” on PBS or Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” you probably know most Roman Emperors acted like this. When Matthew wrote his Gospel somewhere between 80-90 AD, Emperor Domitian was inflicting his paranoia on the empire, persecuting Jew and Christian alike, as he couldn’t tell the difference, and his older brother Titus had destroyed and burned Jerusalem a decade before. This is actually the realist part of the parable. Stuff like that happened in the first century.
Now we move back into crazy fantasy-land, when the king decides to invite everyone they can find, good or bad. That’s nuts! Can you imagine the security nightmare? Emperor’s may be crazy but they are not stupid. They throw their parties safely at the Colesium. They do not invite the plebians to the royal wedding. I like Luke’s version of this parable much better because he edits the violence from the parable and gets to the main point saying, “But when you give a banquet, (not some king, or not even God in heaven) you invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Luke 14:13-14. (I like that better, but I’m stuck with Matthew for today.)
There is one more absurdity to deal with. Now we have someone who shows up without a wedding gown, and the king says, “This is not a jeans and flannel shirt event. This is not a walk in the woods, it’s a Royal Wedding. Who let you in?” (His wife says, I told you to wear a tie.) Next thing you know the guy is tide up and thrown into the outer darkness. I don’t even know where that is, but it sounds really bad, much worse that being a loser in a wedding reality show.
Great preachers seem to be drawn to this robe scene as the fundamental conflict. Why is the king so upset? Does he feel disrespected, and what does it mean for us, and the church, now? (Anyone feeling nervous about what they wore to church today?)
Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics, “[The} invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.” In other words, what we have here, says Barth, is a failure to party! If you join the party, bring your full self with joy, don’t just come out of duty. (Religion based on duty alone=outer darkness!”
I would add this interpretation. The Great Banquet is like the Hotel California. Once you have gone in the door, you can’t go back. Once you have said, everyone is welcome, you can’t go backwards and say only a few belong here.
Since we are talking about wedding controversies, today is the special Sunday to celebrate the Association of Welcome and Affirming Baptists. Its great timing because through the inaction of the Supreme Court to hear appeals, we are now moving towards 31 states which now recognize GLBT Marriage Equality. Just this weekend, the UCC won a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina lifting a ban on clergy to officiate at inclusive gender weddings. When it comes to Marriage Equality, the UCC has insisted on a Great Banquet. At first, very few people came to the party. Too controversial, you will destroy hetero-sexual marriage (because that is such a healthy institution) and even God will strike you with hurricanes. (Okay, that seems to be happening, but I think it is the result of too much oil, not gay marriage.)
What has happened theologically in the UCC in the last 30 years, is a recognition that if we are going to include GLBT in our midst, we also need to be an anti-racism church, and a handicap accessible church, a church that is welcome to all. While part of Christianity morphed into an exclusive club, narrowly defined by clan, ethnicity and monolithic points of view, churches like the UCC have decided to be Great Banquet churches. When you voted to be Open and Affirming, your statement was not just about sexual orientation, it was about all people. Here is where we are now. The whole culture is starting to join the party. It is a wondrous thing we can hardly believe. But what really started as wanting to welcome gays and lesbians was just the tip of the iceberg. We are not simply the same churches we were 20 years ago, we have just added gay people. When you encounter and welcome new people, it changes the community. If you don’t believe me, bring home a puppy. This will make us into a different kind of church, with new rules, new ways of doing things.
Listen to the open and affirming statement from a new church start in Dallastown, Pennsylvania:
Our ONA Team is working to prepare a welcome statement that clearly and explicitly makes a welcome to all:
- Nationalities and status of citizenship
- Sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions
- Persons with disabilities, including developmental and intellectual disabilities
- Veterans and those who serve in the armed forces
- Families of every variety
- Those who are single, divorced, or separated
- Widows and widowers
- Those of all economic strata and educational backgrounds
- Those struggling with addictions and those who are in recovery
- Children and nursing mothers
- Seekers and doubters
- Saints and sinners
Our proposed welcome statement will proclaim that all are invited equally into ministry and the full religious life of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
Does anything surprise you in that list? Does it sound exciting? There is probably at least one thing in the list that makes you uncomfortable. This is not some touchy-feely liberal, politically correct, “we are the world” concert. If we seriously want this kind of inclusion, this is a recipe for assumptions to be challenged, lots of misunderstandings, and moments of great awkwardness, as we realize that many of our standard operating procedures are a mismatch to the new reality. This is a recipe for chaos. And this is straight from the heart of Jesus and the Gospels-the Jesus that protected the woman to be stoned, ate with sinners and tax collectors and hugged lepers. That is the Great Banquet. In the beginning of this creative process, there will be Great Awkwardness, and God looks at it all and says, it is good. But it isn’t always easy, its messy.
So it is all the more important to celebrate where we have come. Today we celebrate marriage equality in 31 states and the ongoing transformation of our culture. And if we are going to put on that robe, remember that weddings are not an end point, it is only just beginning. Now the real work begins on how to start a new life with new partners.