In the name of God, creator, redeemer, sanctifier. Amen.
Let me ask you to think for a moment of a time when you experienced genuine joy. Maybe it was some spectacular fireworks on a summer’s night. Or the best piece of chocolate you ever tasted. A walk through the woods in the golden light of a fall day, as you crunched through the leaves on the path, how they sounded, how they smelled. Maybe your joyful time had to do with an occasion of celebration. The miracle of the birth of a baby, your own or someone else’s. A birthday that was particularly memorable because of who was there, or how special you felt, or a gift you received that you had especially wanted or was especially touching. Maybe your joyful experience occurred at your graduation from high school, or your child’s graduation from college, or your grandchild’s graduation from 8th grades and the pride you felt at the announcement of their name.
For many of us, a wedding is an opportunity for a joyful celebration, because at a wedding we honor the promises of two people, the blending of two families, the public display of the possibilities of love, the blessing of Almighty God on a new family and its future. Yes, joy and gladness are present in a lot of times and places in our lives, and when those times have been graced with beautiful liturgies and wonderful parties, we are filled with joy and gladness for having been part of them.
When God sent Jesus into the world he sent him carrying an invitation. “Follow me, and be part of the joy that is coming from God. Walk with me and know what it is to be loved. Come with me, and have a companion on the journey and whether the trek is hard and rocky, or smooth and easy, you will never be alone.” God’s invitation in Jesus is an invitation to joy. This is what Jesus was striving to convey to the Pharisees and chief priests in the temple long ago, when he told them the parable of the wedding banquet. The invitations had gone out, the food was ready, the door was open, they would be welcomed, but they chose not to come. They had been offered joy, and they were not seeing that. They were in the presence of God, and they were not recognizing that God could do a new thing. All they were seeing was someone, something they didn’t expect, something that was against the rules and out of the ordinary, something that threatened them, so Jesus made it clear in his parable, “OK, we’ll keep looking and will find someone else who will attend the banquet and feel the love and joy. You had your chance.”
I wonder how many of us, at some point in our lives when we’ve messed up, have had a parent or a teacher or some authority figure say to us, “Well, I warned you. I saw that coming. I hate to say it but, I told you so.”? Don’t you hate that? Doesn’t it just rankle to hear that? So often it’s beyond irritating to hear, “I told you so” because often it’s true. We had been warned, we had been cautioned, if we had proceeded differently, if we had listened or been paying attention or better prepared, things might have turned out another way. The Pharisees and chief priests didn’t like hearing from Jesus that God might be, indeed was, turning to tax collectors and sinners after he turned to them, the righteous and respectable. No, that did not work for them, the thought that they might be missing out because of how they behaved and what they refused to see and do.
For Jesus was making it clear, to them and to us, that the Kingdom of God was being extended far and wide and the funny thing was that the most unlikely people were being invited and were stepping up. Shepherds. Foreigners of all kinds. Women of ill repute. Men who collected taxes and were despised by their victims. Eunuchs, fishermen, women, children, sick people. Those second-stringers, who were being called off the bench to get into the game, those people were and are us.
It is by God’s grace that we have been invited to the banquet, and I think it is really in humility that we step through the door and up to the table. We are well aware that we are not among the perfect observers of the law, blemish-free when it comes to sin, that we didn’t inherit the right to be here, that Jesus’s gift of his redeeming grace is free to us and comes unearned. And at the same time, I hope we know the joy of being freely invited, genuinely loved and absolutely welcomed. That is what Jesus is offering to everyone.
However, St. Matthew the evangelist goes on with the parable and we hit a snag. This bit in the story about the man without the wedding garment has always been troubling, hasn’t it?, because it seems to refute all that grace has to offer. As a young person, I remember reacting to this part of the story with some indignation. What? The guy had been invited and had just come to the party from outside, and he gets slammed because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes? Maybe he was poor and didn’t have any. Maybe he didn’t have time to change. Maybe he didn’t understand it was a wedding. Give the guy a break. But something else was going on in the story.
In the time of Jesus, the rabbis circulated a talk about a king and some garments, a story Jesus’ hearers would have known. The story involved a king who invited his guests to a feast, without telling them the exact date and time. He did tell them that they must wash, anoint themselves and put on the proper clothes so that they might be ready when the summons came. Some began their preparations immediately, and took their places at the palace door and waited, believing that in a palace a feast could be prepared rather quickly and that the call might come at any time. The others believed that it would take a long time to prepare a lavish feast for so many and that they had plenty of time to get ready. So the farmer went to his field to plow, the mason went to the site to set the stones, the potter sat at his wheel and worked the clay, the woman put the yeast into the bread and waited for it to rise. Then suddenly, the word came, “The feast is ready. Come to the banquet!” Those at the door were ushered in, seated and began to eat and drink. The others rushed home, cleaned up, anointed themselves, got dressed and hurried to the palace. But the doors were closed and they had to wait outside, smelling the good smells, hearing the music and the laughter, aware of the joy they were missing. The rabbinic tale speaks of the duty of preparedness for God’s call, and the garments stand for what we do to make ready. Like Jesus’ references to the virgins who have their lamps full of oil, ready to greet the bridegroom; like the prodigal son’s father who is watching the road to see when his errant son will come home; like all of us who are being told to wear masks and wash our hands and stand 6 feet apart from people, Jesus is telling us to be watchful and prepared.
In the midst of our present difficulties – joy, grace, being ready, there is a lot to this enterprise of living and being part of the Kingdom. Some of it we do ourselves, some of it is gifted upon us and then we get to decide what we will do with that gift. St. Paul, in closing his letter to his beloved Philippians, is all about encouragement when he tells them “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry, but rather, give thanks.” And then his best, most stirring line – “Keep on doing the things that you have received and learned, that you have heard and seen in me, St. Paul, and the peace of Christ will be with you.”
Keep on doing the things that are of God, loving God and your neighbor as yourself, respecting the dignity of every human being, honoring and protecting creation, often just showing up, and know that you will be welcome at the banquet God has prepared for us. Amen.