"Who me? I'm invited?"
subtle interrelation of the grace of election, God’s will to have a people, and the obligation of obedience and faithful, grateful response.
consequences for failing to live up to grace?
Clothed in Christ vs. common clothes
All are invited. And there is an obligation of obedience when you arrive. Participate, cloth yourself appropriately, or be asked to leave.
I’ll admit from the start that I have wrestled with this passage and do not necessarily feel like I’ve landed in a place that feels satisfying, yet. This happens many times as I prepare for preaching each week. Some weeks, it is clear and I feel inspired by the good news I hear God sharing in a particular biblical text. But other weeks, I’ll pray and study and write and still feel like it’s just not quite there.
Sometimes, this happens because I don’t have the imagination for the text that helps us see it from our own perspective, here and now. Sometimes, the wrestling happens because I actually don’t like what emerges from the study — I don’t like the outcome or perspective that the text is seeming to share. Sometimes this happens because the text is so full of directions and opportunities for study that it is impossible to say anything coherent or comprehensive without spending hours and hours of exploring in sermon form. But you all didn’t plan on that today, did you? How about I keep this to the roughly 20 minutes that we are accustomed to.
But as I am working with this text, I actually think the wrestling and looking for something deeper or “more” is one way in to this particular story. What I mean is, the struggle, the work, the long obedience of growth and shaping a line of faithful inquiry — that might be one of the exact things that this particular text invites us to.
How, you say? Well, I’m gonna share the punch line of this text before exploring it a bit more. What I read here, and with the help of others who have studied this text for centuries, is the abundant welcome of God and, with it, the call to faithful obedience.
Like I say, I don’t feel resolved on this, but this feels like a generative avenue to pursue. Not the only one, but one avenue, one way of making meaning.
And so, before diving further in, I want to say how good it is to reflect back on how we study Scripture and realize that there are a great many ways we can find meaning and learn from the text, even if it is familiar, even if it is confounding. God speaks through the text in multivalent ways — meanings and meanings and meanings emerge. Not that there are contradictory meanings, but that a text can hold a great deal of meaning and nuance and therefore we can delight in the deepening exploration that occurs as we study it all through our lives.
Ok, as I mentioned, there is a lot going on in this parable text. I want to approach it in 3 ways: first, to explore what happens when the invitation to the feast is ignored or denied; second, to explore what happens when the invitation is accepted without full obedience or participation; and third, to explore what happens when the invitation is lived into, fully participated in, received and celebrated.
I’ve titled this sermon, “Who me? I’m invited?” and what I want to explore are three responses to that invitation.
The Invitation Ignored or Denied
First, there is the invitation ignored.
The passage says the people who received and ignored the invitation “made light of it.” They went about their business, ignoring the opportunity to come to the prince’s wedding. Some simply ignored it and some took to outright violence against the king’s messengers.
This part of the parable might sound familiar. It does because throughout many of Jesus’ parables, there are people who ignore the master’s call or they, like seeds on rocky ground, don’t grow up like you’d hope they would.
What I wrestle with here is the reality that you can ignore the invitation to the party or the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t want this to be true, I don’t want this to be the end of the story for these folks. I wrestle with it, because I want there to be a way of grace. But, time and again through the gospel parables, we hear about people who turn away. This is their right and it happens. The king calls them “not worthy” because they ignore the invitation.
I wrestle with this because I want even the unworthy to find a place at the table with God. And it pains me to think that some might simply disregard the invitation to the table or violently oppose this.
I find I’m invited, in this part of the narrative, to feel the grief and lament of the ones who ignore or deny the invitation. I don’t feel like it is fair to write them off and so I feel a longing, perhaps like one of the messengers may have done, to plead with the king to give them some grace. I don’t feel like I can resolve this enough to my satisfaction and perhaps this is a center point of how I hold hope.
Coupled with the lament, there is also the rage of the king that we need to attend to. The good, good feast, the wedding banquet — when the invitation is ignored or denied, I think it is quite justifiable to feel anger here. It makes sense. I know I’ve felt that way: the friend I invite over for dinner and who I know says they can’t come because they are waiting for a better opportunity to come along. (As an aside, I’ve also been that guy…it’s not the most life-giving place to be, either). We wrestle with the anger of being jilted and even harmed in response to our invitation.
So, that’s our first category of approaching this text.
The Invitation Accepted without Full Obedience
The second category of folks I want to explore and wrestle with are the ones who get invited later, the good and the bad, who actually do come and attend, but among them, there is at least one who doesn’t fully obey the norms of the party and gets thrown out.
At first blush, I have the most trouble with this part of the text. You’ve got to say to the king, “come on buddy — you invited these people as second-choice participants. Beggars can’t be choosers. Don’t flip out if they don’t do it right.” I think part of this, for me, is an assumption that since the invitation went out to the streets, to all the people the messengers could find, that perhaps there were a few folks who didn’t have appropriate wedding attire. The beggar on the roadside who is there for a warm meal. The poor widow who sold her wedding gown to feed her family. I want the king to cut them some slack! I mean, if you’re going to require everyone to wear a wedding robe, are you going to provide them for everyone?
But this wrestling gets more complicated when I think about the purpose of accepting the invitation. The ones who show up have accepted the invite. We don’t hear about anyone from the streets turning the invite down or saying, “You know, I’ve got another commitment.” But what about those folks?
I struggle with this part of the text, even as I read through scholars who have studied the text for years. I don’t find myself satisfied with the way the king handles the one man, throwing him out into the darkness of the streets, the place of weeping. Perhaps the folks out there are weeping because they couldn’t accept the invitation because they didn’t have wedding robes either? So was he just gutsy and tried to go in anyway?
There is something more going on here. There is something more to this person and the king’s reaction.
Commentators argue that the text presents the concept of God’s election of participants in the life of the kingdom, and with that participation, comes the call to obedience. Basically, it’s the note on the wedding invitation that says “black tie.” You are very welcome, but make sure you wear your tuxes and evening gowns. And if you can’t, don’t come.
While I wrestle with the justice of this kind of invitation, I want to also look on the other side of it and remark about the ones who live obediently into the invitation.
The Invitation Lived Fully
Our final category is those who come to the wedding feast in their robes and are welcomed. They aren’t the first choice, but that doesn’t matter. They receive the invitation gracefully and obey the cultural rules of dress code and conduct.
They are the chosen, the ones who get to fully participate. They are the ones who celebrate the wedding and enjoy the feast.
But they are also the ones who have to watch the king throw out the one without a robe.
How do you imagine that felt? Imagine getting the call to come to the wedding feast and rushing to get your robe and come up the mountain to the king’s house. Imagine walking alongside your neighbors who also dressed up for the occasion. Imagine the excitement at getting to be at the king’s feast.
But then also imagine that you notice this one person who isn’t wearing a robe. You wonder, “did they not get the memo?” You look at them and think, “well, that’s not going to end well.”
On the one hand, this group of people have received the blessing of the king’s grace and can simply own that for themselves. They are you and me, the ones who say yes to God’s invitation and live along the journey of deepening our obedience and fully participation.
But on other hand, this group is also complicit in the one getting thrown out. Didn’t they see the need to tell this person to grab a robe? His expulsion is on their hands.
This makes us feel guilty, doesn’t it? I wrestle with this guilt, this complicity.
And so here is where I think we have a great opportunity to explore and deepen our understanding of being called to be witnesses to God’s kingdom. It is wonderful that we hear the invitation for ourselves.
But then…the work is not to simply gather up your belongings and join the party. The work draws us to help others along, too. We know the goodness of the feast, our work is to invite others and equip them to participate.
Back to the man thrown out — the text says he was speechless. Why was he speechless? Because he didn’t know how to respond? Sure. But also, maybe because he looked around at the room of people and was speechless at how they had set him up for failure.
Friends, the point here, that I’m wrestling with, is our call to equip and empower others to be a part of the party. Teach, lift up, admonish, encourage each other. Does someone you know want to join in, but they’re afraid they can’t be good enough? Then how could you share with them about grace and let them know it’s ok to not be perfect, but that we are all “on the way” and, “hey, here’s an old robe of mine, you’re welcome to use it.” Oh, you don’t know how to sing hymns from a hymnal, that’s ok, let me show you. Oh, you don’t know all the Scriptures by memory? That’s ok, let me teach you a couple simple ones that mean something to me. Oh, hey friend, we don’t treat each other like that, we respond with forgiveness and love. It’s ok, you’re learning, let me show you how.
I can imagine there were some folks at the wedding feast in borrowed robes. They’re the folks who say, “who me? I’m invited?” They’re the ones who maybe should have denied the invite, but someone else helped them out.
Maybe the teaching of this text isn’t for us, directly. Maybe, instead, its for us to share with others, to let others know how to be involved.
These are wrestlings, because they require deeper reflection and wondering.
Being Curious with Scripture
Taking a curious approach to a difficult and rich text like this is a mark of growing in our faith. As we walk the road with Christ, we begin to recognize that there are always new things to learn, new ways to encounter our world, new opportunities to reconsider how we understand the journey of faith. Having disagreements with God can become more normal, in a good way. Having questions and seeking out a deeper sense of truth can lead us into closer relationship with the Holy One. For some, this struggle and deepening of questions can also lead to discomfort and even cause us to want to step away. Doubt can arrive.
And I want to say “that’s ok!” as I work on this passage. It is ok to have questions and wrestle and feel unresolved.
For me, I am able to bless my doubts and my struggle with Scripture. It has taken me many years to get to that place, but now, I can hold the tension of a text like this, with its uncomfortable ending, and wonder at what I might be missing, rather than disregarding it as unpalatable. This is the journey of spiritual maturity.
Can you find the invitation to wrestling today?
One of the most important things that keeps me tethered, even as I wrestle, is the affirmation of God’s abundant love. That is why we need to read the Isaiah passage from this morning alongside this parable in Matthew. We need to be reminded that out of desolation and wandering, God is calling the people to an abundant feast, a place of gathering that then sends out the people all over the world. A place where tears are wiped away and death is swallowed up.
If this is in our imagination, we can hold the tension of wrestling with God. If this is the ultimate revelation of God’s kingdom on earth, this prophetic picture of how God’s feast occurs, then we can handle the struggle. By holding this picture, we can also see why the parable instructs us to obey, to participate fully, to not come underdressed, but come ready to be fully a part of the celebration.
May we hold the wrestling with grace and welcome. And may we help others along, not shunning them or ignoring their need for help, but rather by grace step alongside them and show them how its done.
Let us pray.