Larry R. Benfield
Proper 23 – Year A
12 October 2014
Grace, Siloam Springs
Some parties have a buzz, and even though I cannot define it, you know what I talking about. You walk in and it’s electric. You talk and eat and drink, maybe even dance if the host has put a good mix of music on the sound system. The lighting is just right, and you feel good looking and tall and thin. It is so great that you could almost swear that should you look out the window, you would see the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge in the background simply because your evening feels as if you are having the bright lights, big city experience no matter where the party is taking place. In fact, it is so good that perhaps the newest arrival comes in, takes a look around, and (for reasons I will explain later, I am not being sacrilegious), says to herself, “Jesus Christ, what a party.”
But at certain parties, usually at a religious event or a fundraiser, it happens. From somewhere in the room there is the sound of a spoon tapping on a glass, a sign to shut up and behave. A speaker takes center stage and starts talking as if he is the most important person in the room, different from the rest. He gets serious and the words are boring. The energy leaves the room. You look down toward the floor and realize that you can’t see your belt because your belly is in the way. You gaze around and no one looks quite as good as before. Someone has broken the spell. You might as well be in Perryville, Arkansas, on a Tuesday night.
We have all been there. Some parties work, and some don’t. Churches in particular are notorious for bad parties. Tell me after this service if you have ever found a church party that temporarily made you feel good looking and tall and thin. Church gatherings are usually too chintzy with the food and drink, and someone thinks that playing Gregorian chant in the background is appropriate. At almost every church event I have been to someone can’t resist lecturing. And have you noticed that when someone wants to get everyone’s attention at an Episcopal gathering, he or she yells out “The Lord be with you”, which I think is more sacrilegious than walking into a room saying, “Jesus Christ, what a party.” The unconscious statement is that you may have been having a good time, but now we will mention the Lord so that you can stop having fun, as if God and a party are like oil and water.
Immiscible is the word that describes oil and water, two things that don’t mix well. Immiscible is how we tend to think as well of God and fun. But when we think that way, we are keeping our eyes closed to today’s gospel. The kingdom is a party after all, where everyone feels wonderful because no one tries to steal the spotlight. Remember that truth if you want to stay in church.
In today’s lessons, the prophet Isaiah focuses on the menu. He states that God is making for the people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines. All our cares and crying will stop. That is what anticipating a party is about: the expectation of a time in which our cares vanish. In today’s gospel parable, Jesus turns his attention from menu to guest list. He says that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gives a party, a wedding banquet specifically, and woe be to the person who thinks it is something else. The king works hard to make the party get a buzz. The original invitees don’t show up, so he goes to plan B and drags in enough people, good and bad alike, to fill the hall. But there is one person who chooses not to put on party clothes and be transformed into someone better. He wants to stand out as different.
Don’t get sidetracked by assuming that the person who does not dress appropriately is poor and therefore the king is being unreasonable. The man without the wedding garment may have been the richest person in town, just simply on the social outs with the host when the original invitations went out. Money is not a part of this parable other than that we understand that the king has spent lavishly on oxen and fat calves. The point is that a guest wants to treat this event as if it is not a wedding banquet. He is the one who is always tapping on the glass and saying, “Look at me.” The king will not let that one guy make everyone else miserable. He in effect says, “If you want to be miserable, go weep and gnash your teeth somewhere else. Folks here, good and bad alike, are going to be transformed by their wedding garments, feel good looking and tall and thin, and you won’t make them feel otherwise.”
That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is a party where everyone, good and bad alike, gets a chance to come in from the streets where we live and work and hurt and worry, and begin to feel like a million bucks, feel loved. Everyone looks equally good. We all feast. And the only warning is, “Don’t think you’re better than everyone else, for if you do, you will find it’s not your party at all.”
Now let’s get to the serious theology behind this story. At the heart of Christianity is our belief in resurrection, our trust that Jesus lives among us now in every time and place. We Christians see the resurrected Christ in others, in good and bad alike. It is what happens when you get baptized into a fellowship that makes no distinction between good babies and bad babies, virtuous adults and notorious sinners. That is the invitation. Then there is the transformation. For Christians to be evangelists, resurrection means that others must see the resurrected Christ when they look at us. That is the wedding garment. It is why I earlier made the comment about walking into a celebration and saying, “Jesus Christ, what a party,” because when someone who has been on the street sees us, that person ought to be seeing Jesus Christ through us. We are called to look like the Christ, to wear the wedding garment, to hide our goodness or badness, so to speak, and if we don’t want to be a part of that great leveling of humanity, then God says we can go weep elsewhere.
That great leveling, that being hidden in Christ, is not how religious life is usually lived out. Someone is always standing up tapping a glass and making a speech, separating the good from the bad. Often it is nothing more than an attempt on the part of the speaker to prove his own unique virtue. And from the parable we know how much the king dislikes that sort of uniqueness. That calling attention to oneself makes all the people with hardscrabble lives who have never been invited anywhere before look down at the floor and wonder if they really do have a place in this particular room with these particular people. Is it any wonder that soccer with the kids and ESPN on TV are more popular on Sundays than church? They form communities of anyone willing to show up or tune in.
The good news will be made apparent when we start seeing the kingdom as the best party we have ever attended, good precisely because everyone looks equally good. God is calling for nothing less than the transformation of how we see our very selves, wedding garments for all.
There is always a lot of talk about what the future of the church might be. On the one hand, it might go bankrupt because no one shows up, sort of like those initial invitees in the parable. Some friends and I have wondered what the closing service of the Episcopal Church might look like if such is our future. I can see it being held perhaps in Des Moines or Sioux Falls, in the conference center of a second rate hotel chain, with no windows where you might see something of beauty beyond. People in the room will be walking around with ungenerous-sized cups filled with herbal tea. There will be religious music in the background. And the speeches will be amazingly earnest. No one there will be dressed for a party; they will all be wearing a wide variety of clerical garb as if they are getting ready for the most serious moment of their lives, which I suppose is true because they will be getting ready to die. It is what happens when no one puts on a wedding garment.
But if we, in places such as this one, will issue the invitation to anyone, good or bad, to come in and be transformed along with us, then the good news will triumph over the potential of such a drab ending. There will be a buzz in the church. There will be food and drink and music; in fact, that is the recipe that we already use as we gather for worship each week. Folks will be asked not to be satisfied with staying as they are, but to put on wedding garments, to be transformed into icons of the risen Christ. And here is what that transformation finally looks like: to act as if we believe that God’s love will cover anything, to work for justice and peace, to give away from what we hold dear, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Live that way, and the good and bad will fill the room, and everyone will look great. We won’t be getting ready to die; we will be getting ready to live. All we will see is the resurrected Christ, and all we will hear is, “Jesus Christ, what a party.” Amen.