Thursday, July 20, 2006

What to Wear to a Wedding

Twenty-five years ago last month, there was a very, very famous event. It was the most-watched event in history at the time, and it continues to this day to be the most-watched event of its kind, only surpassed in viewing by recent Olympics and World Cups. Does anyone know what it was? That’s right: it was the wedding of the twentieth century. Charles, Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer. An estimated 750 million people watched it on television around the world. That was roughly eighteen percent of the population of the world at that time. A national holiday was declared that day.

I’m going to ask you to use your imagination this morning. Suppose you could go back in time, and suppose that you were living in London in 1981. Now suppose you go to the mailbox one morning and you receive an invitation to the royal wedding. How do you react? Remember: roughly one in every six people on the planet was going to be watching this event on television. And you receive one of only 3500 invitations. Those odds are only slightly better than winning a lottery. Imagine how you’d feel to receive such an invitation.

This morning, I’m going to be preaching from one of Jesus’ parables. And this parable asks you to do exactly that. Think about how you would feel to receive an invitation to a royal wedding, an invitation to the wedding of the millennium…

1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.”

When you get invited to a wedding, it is a great compliment. There, you are permitted to share in the joy of a glorious occasion. The food, drinks and entertainment are usually paid for by your host. In this parable, the host was the King, and this King had apparently pulled out all the stops to have the biggest and the best, and the most extravagant and exciting wedding feast ever. These days, a wedding reception is over in an afternoon or an evening. Back when Jesus lived, they could continue the party for as long as a week or more. And when it is the King giving the party, an invitation also meant a free week of vacation, too. After all, what boss would dare tell the King, “I’m afraid that Jack can’t come to your party – he really has to be at work”? In the UK, a national holiday was declared for the day of the royal wedding. In the land of the King, the holiday would last as long as the party. So an invitation to the King’s son’s wedding party was nothing more than an invitation to the most fun you could possibly squeeze into one week, all expenses paid. Imagine getting an invitation to such an event!

But the parable is full of surprises. And the first one comes right off the bat: verse three – [the King] sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Can you imagine? They refused to come! I bet when Jesus first told this story, he had to stop here to let the crowds calm down. They would have been saying to themselves, “are they crazy? Who would turn down the chance to go to the party of the century?”

Why would anybody turn down such an invitation? Well, I’m afraid that this is one of those cases where the reasons that people give would be slightly different from the real reasons. Some might say that they didn’t want to come because they didn’t like the King. Others might say that they didn’t like the other people who were coming to the party. But surely they would be plenty of people at the party that anyone could get along with! You wouldn’t be made to sit beside any you disliked. In fact, in spite of all the excuses, there is really only one reason not to go to the King’s party: whoever refused to come was simply too full of himself. But you see, the parable is telling us a little bit about ourselves. Sometimes, we’re really just too full of ourselves to be willing to accept the riches that God offers to us.

“No way!” you might reply. “If God was to offer me a week’s vacation of all-expenses-paid fun, I’d never turn it down.” Ok, we might not be the kind of people to turn God down flat, but what about what happens to the people in verse five? Starting with verse four: 4“Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' 5But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.” Now we might not be the sort of person to turn God down exactly, but Jesus warns us that the most common and easy way to turn God down is not to pay attention!

Now you know why your parents told you that paying attention is so important. I guess the idea is that if we make a habit of paying attention to our parents and our teachers, it will be easier to pay attention to God.

Notice, however, that the real problem in the parable is not so much not being able to pay attention, but choosing to pay more attention to other stuff. There might not be anything particularly wrong with watching some television, but if television takes over our lives, we better do something about it. There might not be anything particularly wrong with shopping, but if shopping takes over our lives, we better change things quick. There might not be anything particularly wrong with our work, or our hobbies, or our friends, but if they distract us to the point that we cannot hear God calling us to come to his party, then we’d better be careful.

And then the parable takes another interesting turn: 6“The rest [of those who were invited] seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7The King was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Now strange as it might seem, these two verses are Jesus way to give his listeners a clue about what he is talking about. You see, everyone listening to Jesus knew that the prophets of long ago were servants of God, and that those prophets were mistreated and killed by the leaders of the people hundreds of years ago. What’s more, everyone believed that God had let the kingdoms of Israel and Judah be conquered and captured, and God had let the city of Jerusalem be burned precisely because the leaders would not listen to the prophets. So this part of the parable is simply Jesus way to make sure everyone knew that the King in the story is really God.

Oh, and there is another point here, too: Jesus lumps those who killed the prophets together with those who are too busy to pay attention to God, doesn’t he? That’s probably a good lesson, too. Don’t be too busy to let God get your attention. And when God wants to get your attention, don’t be too full of yourself to refuse to listen. You know, we always make time for the things that are most important to us. How important is God in our lives this morning?

So the party is ready. The food is hot. The tents are up. The entertainment is charging by the hour. Only one problem: all of the people who have been invited aren’t showing up. Not to worry, though: the King has a plan. Verse eight: 8"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Imagine that: Jesus says that anyone who is invited but refuses to come didn’t deserve to come in the first place. And what’s more, the King would now have just anyone come to his party ‑ as Jesus says, “both good and bad.” Let me give you a hint: just because there are bad people at the King’s party is no reason to stay away. It is far, far preferable to be in the presence of the King to staying at home because, hey, let’s be honest, you are too full of yourself. So yes, the good and the bad are invited to the wedding. There is no discrimination at all. The King demonstrates his great kindness by offering places at his banquet to absolutely everyone. No one is too young, or too ugly, or too stupid, or too broken, or too hurting. The King makes sure that everybody is invited to the wedding. Isn’t that nice? Not a bad way to end the parable. But Jesus doesn’t end it there. In fact, let’s read the whole parable…(Matthew chapter twenty-two, if you’d like to follow, I’ll give you a chance to turn to it in your Bibles)

1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

4"Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'

5"But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6The rest seized [the king’s] servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

8"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.

13"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

14"For many are invited, but few are chosen."

You know, in Anglican churches across Canada, after scripture is read, the reader will say, “This is the Word of the Lord.” Do you know how the people respond? That’s right: “Thanks be to God.” This is not a bad idea – especially when we read a portion of scripture that it a bit difficult to digest. And these verses from Matthew certainly fall into that category. Here, we read that the King of the Kingdom of Heaven sent an army to destroy those who mistreated his servants, and later we read that the same King would have a dinner guest tied up and thrown out into the darkness for not following a dress code. And so, when scripture is difficult to swallow – and especially when scripture is difficult to swallow – it helps to be reminded: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”

When I was attending university, I had a “eureka” theological experience. You know what that is, don’t you? Eureka simply means “I found it!” in Greek. So the next time you’ve lost something, you can look really geeky by saying, “eureka” when you find it. But we talk about a “eureka experience” as the experience of figuring something out.

The first one happened to the famous Greek mathematician named Archimedes. The king, so the story goes, started to wonder about the royal goldsmith. You see, it was the royal goldsmith’s job to ensure that the royal crown was the purest possible gold. But the king suspected that the goldsmith was cheating: using a mixture of gold with other metals, and keeping the extra gold for himself. So the king sent for Archimedes and asked if he could determine if the crown was pure gold without destroying it.

Archimedes thought about the problem for a while. And one day, while he was taking a bath, he figured out how to do it: you see, he noticed that when he entered the bath, the level of the water rose. And at that moment he knew exactly how to determine whether the crown was pure gold. The story says he yelled “Eureka” and ran down the street. You see, the difference between pure gold and not-so-pure gold can be determined by the density of the material. That is, the relationship between the size of the crown and its weight. Now it was easy enough to weigh the crown; but it was tricky to know how big it was… He could have beaten the crown with a hammer until it was a nice little brick, and then measure the brick, but the king would likely be less than impressed with such a strategy, especially if the crown turned out to be pure gold.

So Archimedes had figured out a really cool way to measure an object’s volume: you immerse it in water, and you measure the amount that the level of the water changes. And to end the story, it turned out that the goldsmith was, in fact, cheating the king. We don’t find out what happened to that goldsmith, but it probably wasn’t very pretty.

Now when people hear this story nowadays, they mostly think “big wup?” After all, everybody knows that the volume of an object can be measured by the volume of water it displaces. But Archimedes was the first to notice this. When he lived, it was quite a revelation.

Now I expect that many of you will react the same way to my “theological Eureka moment.” You might say, “O come on, Doug, everybody knows that.” But you need to understand that there was a time that I did not understand this at all. Maybe I was a little slower than the other kids…

So what was this “theological Eureka” that I’m talking about. Well, it happened like this. I was attending a meeting of a university Christian group. And in that meeting, everyone was always talking about the love of God. So far so good. Talking about the love of God is always a good thing to do. After all, the Bible says that God is love. It says that anyone who loves is born of God. So I have no beef with talking about God’s love. We don’t do it enough. But after a while, I noticed that the way university students understood God’s love was somewhat odd. Apparently, for most university students, God shows his love by simply letting them do whatever they want. For them, God’s love meant unending forgiveness, patient, and forgetfulness. God’s love meant that he never cramped their style. And as this became more and more apparent, it finally dawned on me that the God that these students were talking about wasn’t really involved in their lives at all.

In that meeting, all hints that God might place demands on his children were downplayed. No demands of justice; no demands of honesty; no demands of consistency; no demands of any kind. Any suggestion that God might judge us was dismissed, and there certainly wasn’t anything like Hell. For these students, God couldn’t get angry. If God could get angry, they thought, it meant that God couldn’t be loving. As if the two could never go together… Some seem to think that God’s holiness, perfection and justice take away from his love. But the “Eureka” that I had was that God’s love is made greater, and not less, when we appreciate God’s holiness, justice, and perfection.

You see, it is easy to be merciful when you have no expectations. During the week, these pews and these windows don’t get in your way. But it would be wrong to say that they were loving or merciful. God, on the other hand, demonstrates enormous love and mercy when he doesn’t get in your way. Why? Because he is expecting a lot of us in the first place. In fact, God’s love is demonstrated in the fact that he lets us have our way precisely when we do not live up to his very high expectations.

Now it is true that when someone loves you they don’t crowd you or stifle you; they give you space. But there is no real difference between having a lot of space and being completely ignored. God’s love isn’t like that. Yes, he loves us. Yes, he gives us space. But no, he does not ignore us.

And in the parable, the King did not ignore the fact that one of the guests was not wearing a wedding robe. And that person appears shocked (“speechless” the Bible says) to discover that such a kind and merciful King, one who would invite anybody and everybody to his feast, should enact judgment on a guest who was simply wearing the wrong thing. Yes: our King of glory is a God of grace and a God of love. He is not willing that any should perish. But we should not take advantage of his kindness and grace by thinking that nothing is required of us!

So what, exactly, is required of those who wish to attend the King’s feast? Simply to wear the king’s clothes! That’s right: the wedding garment was also a gift from the King. Apparently, the ancient tradition was that the guests didn’t need to bring their own festive clothing: the host would offer some to any guest who came unprepared. The only folks not wearing a wedding garment were the wedding crashers – those who snuck into the party – and those who refused to wear the clothes that the King provided. Now in our case, since the King invited absolutely everyone to the wedding, there couldn’t be any wedding crashers. So this person had simply decided that his own clothes were good enough to go with. Fair warning: we need something from God to be acceptable to him. If we figure we’ll make it on our own, we are only kidding ourselves.

The language of clothing shows up again and again in the Bible. As we read in Isaiah 61:10 “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.” In Galatians, we read that when we are baptized, we are clothed with Christ. In Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will come and clothe them. In Ephesians and Colossians, we are commanded to put off the old self, and put on the new as if they were clothes to wear. The image of clothing is an important one, because we are in the habit of dealing with clothes on a day to day basis. We put on clothes every morning. Similarly, we should be prepared to come to God every morning and accept what he provides for our salvation. Just like we breathe in and then breathe out, we need to get in the habit of choosing against the old nature, with any anger or malice, and put on the new nature, in the image of Christ himself, with kindness and compassion.

So what, exactly, does the wedding garment represent in the parable? How can we be sure that we will be welcome at the King’s feast? Different people over the centuries have had different ideas about what it must mean. Isn’t it fascinating that something that appears to be so important, that means the difference between enjoying the feast and being cast into darkness isn’t made clear at all? Actually, there may be great wisdom in its lack of clarity. After all, every time someone decides that they know what the wedding garment represents, it causes a split in the church.

It would be a good joke if it weren’t so true. And ironic, to say the least. The parable makes it clear that the feast is inclusive: it is open to everybody. On the other hand, what the wedding garment represents is not made clear. But whenever someone thinks they know what the wedding garment represents, they manage to turn it into an excuse for exclusion. Only God gets to decide who is in and who is out. That’s not our task at all.

Rather, since it is left unclear what exactly Jesus meant when he was talking about the wedding garment, it means that we need to work out our salvation. It means that we need to seek to find, we need to ask to receive and we need to knock to have the door opened.

Many are invited but few are chosen. As Rob read last week: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Be one of those who find life this morning. Accept God’s invitation to his feast and be prepared to change the “clothes” you are wearing to suit the occasion.