During the summer season so recently past, we experienced more than a couple weddings here at St. James. And there are more still to come—most happy events for the church—
but they do bring to mind the sometimes challenging issue of soliciting prompt RSVPs from wedding guests. Recently I saw a clever RSVP card which made light of the situation: There were the traditional boxes to check: “Yes, I will joyfully attend with X number attending.” Or “No, I regret that I will be unable to join you on this most auspicious occasion.”
In addition there were these two boxes: “Yes, I will tell you that I am attending—but then, at the last moment, will not show up, leaving you with a lot of extra food that you had to pay for.” And “No, I will tell you that I am not coming and then ‘surprise’ you with my unexpected presence—assuming that you will be able to feed me with the food of all those no-shows.”
No wonder the issue of RSVPs can incite deep distress. And today’s Gospel narrative proves that “wedding rage” is not a recent development.
Today’s lesson begins with the frustration of a parent having difficulty getting a response from guests invited to his son’s wedding.
A king is unhappy that his people ignore his invitation: They refuse to come to the wedding feast—and furthermore abuse and even kill his servants who deliver the follow-up invite. I guess they did not care for the menu???? In a fury, the king responds by destroying these very rude invited guests—he directs his servants to invite everyone/anyone else they can find to come share in the feast.
But at the feast, when he encounters a single guest who has not donned the traditional wedding robe—he instructs his servants to bind the man hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness.
Now that part of this parable passage seems clear enough—those who do not heed the word of God, those who ignore his invitation of salvation will pay very dearly.
What makes this parable a bit tricky is not the story itself, but rather the summation that Jesus offers after: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This summary seems to suggest that it is not the ones being called who determine their own fate—but rather the one doing the calling who makes a choice as to who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
This certainly jives with Paul’s emphasis that salvation is a matter of grace—that we are not justified by our works—but rather through God’s unmerited gift to us.
Still, in spite of this idea of grace, in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul does not hesitate to offer advice about proper behavior for the early Christians.
While it is God’s grace that sanctifies us—since we can never do enough or work hard enough to deserve God’s forgiveness–still, Paul insists that it is vitally important to “do the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, in order that the God of peace be with you.”
So which is it? Are we supposed to work to receive the God of peace—or is God’s salvation something detached from our choices?
The parable today—makes it clear—in my mind, anyway–that God’s grace is available to everyone—the “good” along with the “bad”because God loves everyone. AND while there is no work that we can do to compensate for our sinful nature, it is necessary through the fact of free will that all people who are offered God’s grace must make a choice–whether or not they will open themselves up to receive God’s offering.
Each and every day, we struggle to be open to the gift being offered. We wake up to a new day and we must decide if we will be thankful—or grumpy. Each time we encounter someone who is unkind—we must decide if we will reflect that unkindness or if we will respond differently.
It is oh-so-easy to bark back at the folks who bark at us. Curse the guy who cuts us off in traffic, frown at the person who frowns at us at the checkout counter. But in these acts—we close ourselves off from the God of peace. And deep down, we know this.
We know how much better we feel—how freeing it is– when we respond differently, when we do not allow the behaviors of others to control our own behavior. Now THAT is real power.
I do not have many personal examples of this because I have such a long way to go. But let me offer one.
Once I was at the Sandwich Saturday lunch distribution at St. John’s in downtown Wichita. I witnessed what seemed to be a grandmother yelling nastily at her daughter’s children. The kids were acting out—being typically rowdy children in public: she was grumbling and angry. It was a hot day and the line to receive food was long. Still it upset me to hear the ugly things she was yelling at the children.
Normally, I might not have been too kind to her. But that day something different touched me. I quietly walked up to the woman, and tentatively reached out a hand to her arm, and said, “Some days it is so hard being responsible for so many.”
Everything in her changed. It was as though the hardness in her melted away, exposing a vulnerable and wounded human being. And all my assumptions about her “meanness” melted away as well.
We talked while her family ate their sack lunches. Or at least, she talked and I listened. There was nothing I could do that day to fix her problems, but I could at least listen. Maybe it helped her—at least for a short while. I will never know.
But here’s the thing: it helped me. The bizarre thing about meeting unkindness with a different response is not that it changes world—it may or may not have such an impact. But what it changes is us. It offers a profound sense of peace that I do not experience when I to respond in the “normal” way.
We do not have to live our lives constantly filled with fear and anger—and some therapists suggest that anger is merely our reaction to the seemingly unending supply of fears that we carry around with us: fear that someone does not love us—or love us enough, fear that we are not sufficiently respected, fear that we will not get what we need or deserve.
BUT —every single day of our lives—it doesn’t matter if we show up to glean the harvest at the beginning of the day, or at noon, or close to the end of the day—every single moment of every day, our God holds out for us—the possibility of the ultimate peace.
And all we have to do is show up—put on the appropriate habit—that is a way of life that Jesus modeled for us. When we accept God’s offering by donning the mantle of His making—we experience the miracle of transformation
It is not who we say we are—that matters. We cannot simply walk into the feast and sit down without action/living a life that transforms who we are. What is important is what we do—and that will determine whether—at any given moment in time—we will be open to God’s gift of grace.
Why is this so hard? We open our eyes wide in disbelief that the invited guests of the story would refuse an invitation to the king’s feast. We are incredulous at the guest who simply refused to put on the robe that was offered to him when he arrived at the feast.
I wanted to share the response of Dr. Janet Hunter—a Lutheran pastor to this story because what she writes made a great impression on me:
“Oh yes,” she says, “with all of you, I shake my head at this. When told this way it’s hard to understand. And THEN the veil drops and I realize that sometimes the one who refuses to put on the wedding robe is me.”
“Oh yes,” she says, “it is me in those moments when I have secretly considered myself somehow superior to — or at least not ‘as bad’ as the other guests who were also invited to the party.”
“I expect this is me every single day when I believe I have to do more, be more to be able earn an invitation to the banquet. When all I really have to do is show up and put on the robe.”
“Oh yes,” she says, “it is me when I forget I am here for a purpose larger than me. The robe reminds me of this: perhaps, like with a wedding feast, I am simply here to live in joy and gratitude for all that God has done.”
“And yes, it is me every time I forget that I, too, always need the ‘wedding robe’ of Christ’s forgiveness — to cover up all my brokenness, my failings, my sin– the robe which symbolizes my belonging among all these others God so loves.”
You know that place in the Eucharistic Feast each Sunday, when the priest holds up the consecrated elements and says: “The gifts of God for the people of God”?
I always whisper—“We are the people of God.” And this is why when we receive the consecrated elements, the body and blood of our Lord—we respond: “AMEN.”
When I go to Georgetown Retirement Village for the Saturday service there is a woman of non- Episcopal background who, when she receives the elements, says with great enthusiasm, “Thank you, Jesus!” Her sincerity is moving.
The good news is that those gifts–that ultimate gift– is available to us– each and every moment of our lives.
Today– right now is the beginning of a new celebration.
and we can either ignore it, turn our noses up at it, act resentfully or belligerent about it being offered to others as well as ourselves or singing songs of praise and thanksgiving—we can accept the invitation, adopt the habit of Christ, and join in God’s own life-giving feast, singing: Allelujah. ALLELUJAH!