A few years ago the Boston Globe published a story about an unusual wedding banquet. A couple had gone to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston to plan their wedding, and every detail they selected they were determined to be the very best—food, china, flowers, music. They both had expensive taste, and the bill showed it—many thousands of dollars—and half of it was due on the spot as a down-payment.
Everything was moving along smoothly until the day the wedding invitations were to go in the mail, when the groom announced that he couldn’t go through with it. He just wasn’t sure.
Now the hurt and angry bride-to-be had to go back to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, only to learn that there was no way to get back the down-payment. The contract was binding. There were only two options—to forfeit the down-payment or to go ahead with the party.
The bride was of course outraged at this. But the more she thought about it, the clearer she was that she would go ahead with the party. Now, though, it wouldn’t be a wedding banquet, but instead just a great big blowout. As a matter of fact, ten years before this woman had been living in a homeless shelter. But she had managed to get back on her feet over time, had taken a good job, and had eventually made a lot of money. Now she had the idea of throwing a big party for her old friends, the down-and-outs of Boston.
And so in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel had a party the likes of which no one had ever quite seen. The jilted bride changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honor of the groom,” she said—and sent invitations to the homeless shelters and rescue missions in the city. And so that summer evening people accustomed to finding their meals in the trash bins of the city made their way through the grand lobby of the Hyatt to a meal of chicken cordon bleu. Black-tied waiters served hors d’oeuvres to people with rags wrapped around them. Many had their bags of worldly goods with them, reminders of the hard life they were living. But for this night they were treated like kings and queens—sipping champagne, eating chocolate wedding cake, dancing into the night. [This story is retold in Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.]
Well, in case you missed it, that’s a slightly updated version of the gospel story we just heard. A king throws a wedding banquet for his son and then sends his servants to invite the appropriate guests. When they won’t come he sends them out again, this time into the streets and byways to invite anyone they can find, and then he has his party.
In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus tells this story, and each time a little differently. But what you can’t miss is the conviction in all of them that at the heart of life God is throwing an extravagant banquet, and everyone, absolutely everyone, is invited. “Do you want to know what God is like?” Jesus is saying. Do you want to know what life at its deepest is all about? Do you want a glimpse of how we are supposed to live our lives? Think about a bustling, laughter-filled party with platters of food and drink everywhere, and everyone having a ball.
In fact, Jesus constantly used dinner parties, suppers, wedding receptions, and even breakfasts as images of what it means to be with God. The whole world has been invited to a feast, he was saying—everyone is welcome, everyone belongs, no one is left out. There is enough for everyone. No questions asked—about who is virtuous and who isn’t, who has their act together and who doesn’t, who believes in God and who doesn’t. Everyone is in, and for only one reason: a God of unstoppable love wants everyone in.
There is something wild and unruly about the God at the heart of Christian faith. Many have argued that the one thing that separates Christianity from other faiths is not the notion of incarnation—other religions have versions of a god appearing in human form; not resurrection—other religions have accounts of returns from death. No, it’s the simple assertion of grace—the notion that God’s love for every human being and for all of creation is unmerited and measureless, and it comes with no strings attached.
That’s not the version of God many of us picked up through the years. For many that God was a distant, ominous, angry figure who evoked fear more than anything else. This God may forgive, but first we have to sweat bullets, feel terribly guilty, and then crawl our way out of the divine displeasure. Here’s something totally different. This God is throwing a party for the losers as well as the winners, for the sinners as well as the good, for those who have never darkened the door of a church as well as for the ushers and the members of the altar guild. Everyone, everyone, is already in.
But now, having said that, we have to face all the ways this story gets irritating and complicated. In the first place, do we really like this notion that everyone is invited to the party, that everyone is in? Not if you watch the way Christians behave sometimes. Christians have become famous for how readily they write off those who differ from them—people who don’t agree with their own particular beliefs, ways of worshipping, or moral views.
Many Christians were stunned when two years ago Lt. General William Boykin said of a Muslim military leader in Somalia that “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” So much for honoring a child of God who happened to follow Islam.
Christians have been among the worst in claiming to know who’s in and who’s out of the Celestial City. A number of books have come out recently arguing that the greatest danger in the world is monotheism—whether it’s Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—because all these faiths seem to move quickly to a rigid view that “we have all the answers” and everyone else should be relegated to outer darkness.
In one of the wisest books I have read in years, The Dignity of Difference, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, puts the danger this way:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith—or my race or my ideology—do not share my humanity. At the best they are second-class citizens. At worst they forfeit the sanctity of life itself. They are the unsaved, the unbelievers, the infidel, the unredeemed: they stand outside the circle of salvation.
And then he goes on to say that from this conviction flowed the Crusades, the Inquisition, the jihads, the pogroms, and ultimately, the Holocaust.
So the good news is Jesus is throwing a great party and we are invited. The bad news is that all of us are invited. Jesus is describing a party where Irish Catholics and Protestants, Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, Iraqi Shiites, Sunis, and Kurds are all invited. It’s a party where Democrats and Republicans are invited, homeless people and billionaires, gay and lesbian advocates and those who oppose them, “pro-lifers” and “pro-choicers.” God has no taste, no standards!
Of course that isn’t to say that all the people at the party agree with each other. It’s to say that the God we meet in Jesus Christ is a God who loves difference, complexity, mystery. As Rabbi Sacks puts it,
The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, and ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.
Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, who will preach here this fall, summarizes Jesus’ vision through an oft-used phrase in novelist James Joyce’s strangest work, Finnegans Wake: “Here comes everybody.” That’s the vision of God’s kingdom Jesus shows us. That’s the vision our church is given to proclaim. “Here comes everybody.”
There’s a second troubling dimension to this simple story. It’s the fact that so many turn down the wedding invitation in the first place. In Luke’s version people list their reasons for saying no—I’ve just bought a piece of land, I’ve got to check out the new oxen that just arrived, I just got married. Sorry, I’m just too busy to come to the party.
If there’s a deep, joyful party at the heart of life, most of us wouldn’t know it. We’re usually stuck in traffic somewhere. There’s no time in our personal lives and careers for a spiritual life. That’ll have to wait. So will helping our children grow in their faith. Classes, sports, getting into college, those things are what count. We run out of time before we get to the party.
Then there are those who can’t believe the invitation is real. They have too many doubts about faith even to give it a try—too many bad experiences with faith, too many boring church services. The famous socialist Norman Thomas told a priest friend on his deathbed that even then he still couldn’t bring himself to believe in God. To which his friend replied, “It’s all right, God still believes in you.” You don’t have to believe to come to the party. Just come hang around, sample the hors d’oeuvres, see if you don’t begin to catch on to the rhythm of the music.
In our gospel today there is a lot of Middle Eastern exaggeration about the bloody consequences of refusing the party invitation. But the point is the tragedy of it all. To miss out on the sheer delight of knowing God’s love for us is a terrible loss.
Finally, there’s the strangest twist of all in the way Matthew tells the story. Once everyone is in the party the king spots a guest who doesn’t have a proper wedding robe. And he brutally orders the man thrown out of the party. “For many are called,” Matthew says, “but few are chosen.” Whatever happened to the gracious invitation?
There’s a story behind this harsh language. In both Jesus’ time and then especially in Matthew’s, many were starting to take for granted the invitation to God’s feast. Sure, they said, we’ll come in, we’ll follow, we’ll join this new thing called church, but then that didn’t seem to change a thing about their lives. Didn’t you say “Come as you are to the banquet?” they would argue. Nothing required. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you dress. Just come.
No, Matthew says in his version. Being a guest doesn’t mean you come and do as you please. Sure, there’s a party, but are you willing to enter into the spirit of the party? Will you wear your party clothes? Will you join in the dance? Because if you decide to come in wearing your grubby clothes, if you decide to remain your own self-absorbed self, act any way you please, drink too much, offend everyone else, you may physically be at the party, but the party won’t be in you.
In fact, you’re turning your back on the party. You thought the king would settle for a noisy crowd of people who would just come in and be their same dull selves. Not on your life. This king wants everyone to catch the spirit, to taste this banquet of peace and centeredness and aliveness.
You have to get into the spirit of the party. You have to allow yourself to be engaged—to go to work on developing a prayer life, take a class, find a project to ease the world’s pain. Jesus’ invitation calls for conversion, for clean clothes. If you let me, Jesus said, I will make you into bright, radiant creatures of joy made for eternity. But that will mean growth and change.
You see it’s possible to come to the party and miss the party. I remember a birthday party given for one of our friends’ children, a little boy turning five. Unfortunately, the boy seemed to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that day and things hadn’t gone smoothly for him, so at party time the little fellow was in an angry, hostile mood. And it never left him. The guests came, the presents were given, the “Happy Birthday” song was sung, but that boy never did allow the party going on right in front of him to gather him in.
This morning you can almost hear the party now. In fact, we’re about to share in God’s feast ourselves. We’re going to pull out some bread and pour some wine and then taste and see the God who holds us all. The banquet is spread. The invitation is out. And the only question is—Will we join in? Will you join in?