Expecting Invitation

This is a rough story, this Luke parable! First, the so-called “deserving” are invited to a banquet, only to reject the invitation out of hand. Second, when they are re-invited, it’s not enough for them to say, “We’re not coming.” They slaughter the messengers who had the temerity to offer hospitality. Suddenly, we’re cast into open warfare, with the king avenging the murders by murdering the murderers. We get a brief respite when the king turns around and invites the riff-raff. The rejected are embraced, giving us a message we’re more familiar with…until one of them bothers to show up “as is” and is thrown out. Just to be clear: Jesus uses parables as illustrations of God’s desires. So much for puppies and butterflies; this kingdom of God is rough business! Many have tried to rein in the story through the years. The traditional interpretation of it is probably closest to its original meaning: God begins by inviting those who persistently keep the Law to the banquet, but they’re more interested in watching the rules and regulations than they are in feasting and celebration. The messengers are the prophets, who go out time and time again to return the faithful to the fold, only to be ignored, persecuted, and killed.

The second group of invitees is made up of those who represent the early church: the lepers, the poor, the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the sick, the prostitutes, the lame. If the “right” guests won’t attend, then God will be sure to redefine what “right” is. And yet, that doesn’t mean that “anything goes” – you’ve still gotta show up dressed to the party. You still need to play by the rules, even if the rules are new. Otherwise, there’s no room for you.

There is a lot I like about the traditional interpretation. It contains the wonderful surprise of Jesus, where faithfulness is not necessarily what we expect it to be. The marginalized are now the center of attention. And even though it is grace that brought them there, grace still expects a response.

At the same time, it conveniently ignores all of the gore. What are we supposed to do with that?

Then there was the interpretation I came across recently, suggesting that the parable is actually a satire of first century politics, the way that power is wielded, and all the violence that nations bring against each other. In short, it makes Jesus a kind of Jon Stewart of the ancient world. I admit I’m inclined to like this one, except for the one little nuisance that Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of God is like…”

Every time we read Scripture in worship, we finish by saying, “The word of the Lord.” Sometimes that’s easy for me to say; other times, well, I’ll admit that I have to swallow hard. But if I really believe that it is true, even if just a little bit, then I feel like I am left with three ways to approach tough texts. One choice is that I get to pick and choose the parts I like, which means I am now in charge. Another possibility is that I have to get on board with the parts that make me squirm, which might mean some real Cirque de Soleil style contortions. Or the third option is that I have to be comfortable with the fact that I’m going to be uncomfortable.

I am sure that each of you has your own approach, one that makes the most sense to you. I can only speak for myself. And for me, it’s the last one that seems the most faithful and vibrant: learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just the way I’m wired. When I am part of a church, when I am in a worshiping community, I absolutely need to be reminded that God loves me and meets me where I am. When I look back on any given week, I need to hear that message of grace. At the same time, I also need to hear that I don’t have it all figured out, not by a long shot.

I think we do a pretty good job of that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Hope always has the final word. But if all we hear week in and week out is that we’re totally fine just the way we are, that we don’t need to change at all, then I don’t think that’s faith. That’s just baptizing the status quo, whether that’s within us or around us. And if we’re going to follow this Jesus guy, then we better get ready for a journey with some twists and turns.

The invitation to each of us is to take the trip. And today, I want to suggest three characteristics of the journey: God is in charge of the destination. The tickets ain’t free. And we don’t travel alone.

So let us revisit the parable with these three guideposts in mind.

First, God is in charge of the destination. In the parable, the king is outraged that his messengers are killed for merely extending an invitation. And so, he sends his troops to carry out vengeance, to punish those who have blood on their hands. In other words, justice exists. In the kingdom of God, those who do wrong get what’s coming to them. And that justice, ultimately, is in God’s hands – thanks be to God!

I am willing to bet that most of us know quite well that there is true evil at work in the world. Whether as personal as the betrayal of a friend or as global as the persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, it is clear that there are very real wounds in the world in need of a more perfect healing than I would ever be capable of. It’s the kind of healing that only God can bring, that could only be entrusted to God, anyway. Is there an effective political or military response to ISIS? It could be…but for me, the justice is in knowing that those who portray God as a perpetrator of brutality will one day have to come face to face with how God truly is. And the heat of God’s limitless mercy may simply be too much to bear. In the end, it’s not up to me, or any of us. And that’s good news.

Second, there is a cost. When guests finally enter the wedding banquet, it seems that the celebration can finally begin. We can put all of the nasty business of behind us and focus on this new, glorious reality. That is, until the one attendee is called out for the wrong clothes. Unable to speak, he is kicked out.

The king, it appears, has a thing for fashion. But before we get too hung up on this, remember: this is a parable. It’s not about clothes. It’s about the wedding. Speaking of which, where is the groom? Wait…let’s look again: did the king just kick out his own son, sending him into the arms of suffering? It can’t be…or can it?

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that salvation is a gift freely given to us. That said, salvation itself is not free. After all, we’re in Lent, and that’s what the cross is all about. Injustice involves a cost, and Jesus paid it. So as we guests take part in this feast, we would do well to remember the moment the groom was kicked out of his own party. The hope, then, is that we would all come properly attired to the banquet – again, remember, this isn’t about clothes. It’s not that we are motivated by fear that we won’t get kicked out, too, but that we are reminded that the price paid shall not have been in vain.

Whether the first two points sit well with us or not, the third point brings it all back home: we are not alone. We are in this thing together.

We don’t have to read these stories in isolation – in fact, we shouldn’t. We should read them together as a community of faith. In those moments of discomfort, there are times when others have it figured out and can lend us their wisdom. And there are other times when we recognize that we have really good company with others who are still just feeling their way down the path.

This is the invitation of our upcoming Engage series that we will offer in April and May. Now just to be clear, if you don’t respond to the invitation, we’re not planning to send out the troops. Instead, the hope is that each of us would recognize what an honor it is to be invited to the banquet in the first place! It may not be an honor we expect, but the truth is that the one who invites us knows us better than we could ever know ourselves.

If you can’t decide when you can take the class today, I want to you pray about it. How is it that God is inviting you into this celebration? How is it that God wants you to be a part of this journey? Are you ready – not because you necessarily have it all figured out, but because you trust the one in whose hands the destination rests?

May it be so.