RSVP for the Party…Or Else?

Sermon for 5Oct14

Matt22:1-14; Is25:1-9; Ps23
A year ago, I got to go to Wyeth’s birthday party. She was turning 3. I heard a month ahead that she put me on her guest list. I thought that was cool, though I was still nervous.

See, I walked through the door, into a crowded house, and knew only her parents and recognized her babysitter. In spite of feeling out of place among the others, I quickly felt welcome when Wyeth spotted me and exclaimed with a big smile, “Pastor Nick!”

Reflecting back on that party, I’m really glad I went and had fun celebrating with Wyeth. I also have to admit I didn’t even think to invite her to my own birthday. I’m used to parties as small gatherings of my family.

Which says that Wyeth probably can teach me about gospel and about our Bible reading today. This is a reading of outstanding, radical hospitality, an extravagant invitation. It’s about there being a place for you, even when you feel out of place. The only thing keeping you from this celebration is your own reservations, because Christ has indeed secured your RSVP for you.

Let’s go back through the Gospel reading again, with the lens of Wyeth’s party alongside. There will be places it fits, and places we have to adjust (because, after all, even Wyeth is not exactly Jesus).

The parable starts with inviting the typically expected guests. For Wyeth that would most likely have three important traits: 1. kids also about 3-years-old. 2. they come bearing gifts. 3. ready to have fun. For the king in the story, there might be some overlap: he probably expects they’ll bring gifts to celebrate the wedding. The king, though, is likely inviting landowners or officials, the wealthy or the successful, the popular and the pretty, the “haves” of the community.

But then they don’t come. That happened for Wyeth, too. As you may know, even by her age life is busy, so there were 3-year-olds with all sorts of other commitments instead of the birthday party. They had sports games or play dates or appointments or distracted parents. Some of the excuses to the king are like that, too: one had to check on his farm, another was at work. They also had worse excuses; I don’t suspect any of Wyeth’s intended guests were busy with murder.

Another difference is that some of her original guest-list did arrive. The king has an entire party of no-shows. And there’s no distinction between legitimate regrets and the worst offenses. We’ll come back to that with some more interpretation.

For now, notice that the next step is to cast a broader net of invitation. (That metaphor of a net is appropriate; it is about drawing everybody in, a real catchall.) Wyeth did it by inviting a schmoe like me to her party. I clearly didn’t exactly fit in, but she wanted me there anyway. The story’s invitation is a notch more insistent still, simply yanking in passersby off the street, “the good and the bad,” it says, flagging down traffic, pulling over bicyclists, stopping people with yapping dogs, grabbing the Mormon guy by his tie and the Girl Scout selling cookies, pushing in the person in the wheelchair and carrying in the stumbling drunk, not offering a single criterion for entry, but simply encouraging them to join the party. That means even if they think they’re worthy and fit to be there and have every right and are appropriate and fun to party with, still they have the same place as the boors and the bores and the broken and every other loser.

God doesn’t want to keep anybody out. Neither will God let you kick others out, or let you be blocked. The point with God is never how good or how right you think you are; it’s that God loves a party and wants to celebrate. All are welcome. You are welcome.

Let’s try applying the parable at three locations. First, assume that Jesus’ party is heaven, the eternal banquet, with infinite life in the house of the Lord and cups overflowing, where your enemies may be there, but all are celebrating together, redeemed and welcomed by our loving Lord. You may not feel ready to spend eternity with some folks, but in our times it may not be all that shocking to imagine heaven is broadly and equally open for all.

As a second location, think about this worship gathering. If this is a foretaste of the feast to come and is where we practice for the party, we can look around this gathering and estimate how we’re doing. We’d probably guess we’re okay at saying “all are welcome” and not drawing lines that keep some out. But we should also admit that if we’re really extending Jesus’ hospitality and living out his grace, then we should have a lot more people here and really be celebrating.

With that, I also want to come back to the rejected invitations. With Wyeth, those who couldn’t be there missed out on a nice birthday party. With the king in the story, it got them permanently crossed off the list, as one author says, in an A-Team with bazookas blowing up BMWs sort of way.*

I want us mostly to notice that there were no good excuses, no legitimate or worthy regrets. In the story, being interrupted by the details of daily life was just as bad as bumping off the messengers. Not the reasons, but missing the party is the main problem. If worship is the practice, getting us ready for God’s big fulltime party of the kingdom, then we should take that more seriously here. Or we should take it less seriously, and show up for a raucous, abundantly loving dress rehearsal.

For a third location, we must presume that the location isn’t just heaven. It isn’t just at church. The kingdom of God is taking on flesh in your lives. This practice of enjoying life with others, of radical welcome that will leave no one a stranger and celebrates God’s extravagant blessings really is at Wyeth’s house, and yours, from now on and for eternity to come. Which raises a final question: if we consider heaven so open and easy to get into, why are we still so resistant to living that out even in small ways here and now?

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p458