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I was talking with a friend not too long ago about a wedding he’d been at. “How was it, I asked?” I admit to a certain ulterior motive in asking. You see I’ve become something of an aficionado of wedding disaster stories.
Now, don’t judge me. It was my favorite seminary professor who got me started. He made it a point every time he taught the Introduction to Preaching class to encourage students to send him their best wedding and funeral stories.
The dog that was enlisted as ring-bearer at an outdoor wedding that ended up running away with the ACTUAL wedding rings in pursuit of a squirrel. The 3-year old flower girl who got a little nervous about all those people, and in addition to spreading flower petals, left another trail down the aisle for the bride to walk through. The pastor at an outdoor wedding who looked up after reading the scripture to see that both the bride and groom had taken the opportunity to light up a cigarette. The near disaster when the father of the bride- divorced from the bride’s mother- told guests they could sit in the very small separate pew that was supposed to be reserved for her. The groom’s brother who showed up dressed as the groom’s sister- complete with Jackie O pillbox hat. The spring-loaded candles that burned down just enough to launch into the hangings behind the altar which then caught fire.
On the one hand I suppose there was a certain amount of schadenfreude, the happiness found in another’s misfortune, to this collection of stories. But on the other hand, they serve as a reminder that no matter how well anyone plans for their big day, it will always be made more interesting by the sheer messiness of life and other people.
So I was asking this friend about the wedding he’d attended and he said, “you know, it was a really nice service, but things got a little crazy at the reception.” I played along, “why is that,” I asked, thinking maybe the open bar had gotten the better of one of the guests. “Well,” he explained, “everybody showed up.” I was a little confused. “What do you mean everybody showed up?” “The bridal party sent out the invitations with the expectation that half the people they invited wouldn’t be able to come,” he told me, “but they all made it.” “Well, didn’t they RSVP,” I wanted to know, thinking what a nightmare this must have been for whoever had planned the reception. “Oh,” he said, “nobody RSVP’s anymore.”
Another wedding disaster.
The king in the story that Jesus tells has his own wedding disaster on his hands. Only his problem is that he’s throwing a reception that no one wants to go to.
If you saw any of the around the clock coverage of the wedding of Great Britain’s Prince William to Kate Middleton it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down an invitation to a royal wedding. The guest list for that royal wedding was 1900 people and included everyone from members of the British royal family, foreign royal families, various dignitaries (governors, prime minister, premieres, and the like), highly placed government officials, assorted religious leaders, representatives of charitable causes, to a handful of celebrities like singer Sir Elton John and soccer star David Beckham and his wife, Victoria. It was a pretty impressive list, a veritable who’s who. An invitation like that must mean that you’re someone important. Those are the kind of people who get invited to royal events. And from the look of things on the TV, it didn’t appear that there were too many no shows. After all, this invitation came from the Queen herself. Who’s going to turn her down? That would pretty disrespectful.
So if you were a King and you were giving a royal banquet to celebrate your Son’s wedding and no one came, it would be more than a disaster. It would be terrible insult if the people on your guest list showed no interest, or worse made light of the occasion. It would be a terrible insult to say, “I really have better things to do, more important things to do than to join your feast and celebrate with you.”
For you and I, even, that would be pretty hard to take. But for a ruler of the kind that Jesus is talking about, that kind of behavior would be seen as seditious. Not only does it call into question the authority of the King, it actively undermines his rule. To add injury to the insult, some of those invited are more than passively disinterested- they stage something of a mini-coup; taking the king’s messengers and abusing them before having them killed.
Now if this were just your average everyday story, what happens next would be somewhat understandable. If this were your typical Hollywood swords and sandals epic, you would expect a king so viciously dishonored to mount up his troops and show his strength by destroying the offenders and burning their cities. That’s just taking care of business. That’s what it takes to show people who’s boss.
But this is a parable of Jesus, one that he prefaces by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” Wait, what?
Suddenly what sounded like a perfectly reasonable, if slightly violent, response to a royal insult starts to make us a little uneasy, because Jesus isn’t just talking about any old earthly king here- he’s talking about God, isn’t he? Is this what God is like? Are we sure this is Jesus talking? I thought Jesus was all sunshine and butterflies. This sounds more like our reading from the Law,
where Moses had to talk God down from letting his wrath burn hot against all the people who are worshipping the golden calf at the foot of the mountain.
Of course if this were any old king, the show of force, the exercise of violence would serve as a warning and the call would go out again and this time the people too busy to attend the banquet would clear some room on their calendar and find their way to the reception hall.
But that isn’t what happens at all. No what happens is that the king concludes that the people on the A-list, the who’s who, the ones who were considered important enough to invite to a royal event- the king decides they were unworthy. So where do you go from there?
If your A-list is unworthy, who do you invite? It’s not like there’s a letter before A, a group of people who are worth more than that. Which, it turns out, may be the whole point of the parable to begin with. Remember how it began, not as a story about a king wishing to wreck vengeance on a disinterested and dishonorable people, but about a king who wants to throw a party for his son’s wedding. Only it turns out that the people who thought they were good enough to get an invitation to such a prestigious occasion, and important enough to decline if they had other plans, are- not to put too fine a point on it- dead wrong.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the fourth Duke of Whatsitshire, the head prime president of Whatever-stan, the Chief Executive Director of Do-Gooders United, or the Right Reverend Bishop of the Church of Whats-happenin-now. You could be the league season series MVP, a hall-of-fame record holder, or a multi-platinum pop star and it wouldn’t make one lick of difference. The thing that matters more than anything is that the king’s son has found the love of his life, and that is something to celebrate.
And as if to underscore that point, the king sends his servants out to gather everyone they find into the banquet hall, to fill the place up. And they do, both the good and the bad alike.
Yes, you heard that right. The invitation to enter into the jubilant feast of the kingdom is open to everyone! Good and bad alike, fill it up. Now I know that the church is not the same as the kingdom of heaven. On our best days though, we are called to be its ambassadors, to extend this same invitation to everyone we find on the main streets of our lives. The invitation can take any number of forms. It could be as simple as the invitation to share lunch with someone, to include someone who often overlooked, or left out in whatever it is that you are doing. But as the church, it also means doing what it takes to fill this banquet hall. Inviting people to share in this feasting community of faith.
There are all kinds of people out there, selling all kinds of strategies on church growth. There are elaborate marketing plans, and well-tested programs designed to attract more people just like the ones who are already here in church with all the same opinions and all the same tastes in music. We could budget for something like that, I suppose. Or we could go out those doors and just down the block to the people who live in this Huning Highland neighborhood, or just up the road to the University. The train station isn’t that far from here. I bet we could fill this place if we wanted to, because Jesus says that the invitation to the wedding feast, the invitation to the celebration God wants to throw, is for everybody. Not just the A-list, but the A to Z list.
Everybody, the good and the bad alike, and all those in between.
The only thing getting in the way, is our mistaken belief that we have somehow come to deserve this invitation in a way others do not, or worse, what’s getting in the way is the notion that this party is inconsequential enough for us to decline the invitation if it isn’t convenient for us, or we think we can get a better offer. So that what’s ultimately getting in the way is our refusal to put on the wedding garment offered by our host, the failure to clothe ourselves in love of Christ and enter into the Spirit of the celebration.
That would be the worst wedding disaster of them all.