You are invited
Do you know that pastors have nightmares?
A repeat nightmare I have as a pastor is this every dream where I come into a church setting on Sunday morning and learn at the last minute that is my turn to preach. And I look down and realize that I am under-dressed for the occasion, nothing but a pair of swimming shorts and sandals.
In some of those dreams, I try to go on – try to be brave and just fake it til you make it.
But in other dreams, I run around the church looking for an alternative wardrobe, afraid that I will embarrass myself, my family, and the church.
I imagine we all have experienced those kinds of dreams. They are our subconscious working out the anxiety and pressure we all have lived with at some point or another. Maybe it’s not forgetting that it is your turn to preach. Maybe it’s forgetting about a test in school or a crucial meeting or experiencing a wardrobe mishap in front of millions.
According to Dr. Bethany Jubsy, these are called “anxiety dreams” and they “are often metaphoric for needing to perform and feeling unprepared, feeling embarrassed, or sensing danger.”
Indeed, deep down in my own dream, I recognize that the dream echoes with all of those moments in my life when I felt unworthy, like I did not belong, like if people knew who I really was beyond these fancy robes and clergy attire, I wouldn’t be welcome in that pulpit.
I wonder if you know what that is like.
This morning, in this unsetting parable from Jesus, I want to focus most on the end of the parable where kind of like my nightmare, a party guest is kicked out for being dressed inappropriately, for showing up in the wrong attire. Of course, to get there, we need to step back and think about this moment in Jesus’ ministry and how this parable fits.
First recognize in the Gospel of Matthew that we are near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is in Jerusalem with his disciples. Things are about to go bad quickly. Jesus will be arrested, tortured, and convicted on sham charges. His disciples will abandon him. The same crowds who loved him when he did an all you can eat fish taco party in the wilderness demand that he be crucified.
In the passages before this parablee, Jesus is sparring with the Pharisees, riling them up and being point blank with them. He even says to them, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the Reign of God before you do.”
He weaves this story in the midst of this mesmerized crowd about a king who prepares a wedding banquet to celebrate his son’s wedding. In Jewish culture, even for a poor family, weddings would last days, so this was going to be an incredible event. Invitations are sent by the King’s slaves far and wide, but to the surprsie of the hearers, the invitation to this exclusive Red Carpet/Oscar level event is ignored.
The King sends a second invitation and preview of the five star menu and the festivities, and to shock and amazement, not only do some ignore the invite, others grab the slaves and murder them.
The Gospel of Luke has a similar parable but without the violence – but it’s important to note that scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was compiled after the destruction of the Temple and in the midst of many faithful Jewish Christians being kicked out of their synagogues and communities for following Jesus. It was a tense and painful time.
Jesus in this first part of the parable echoes his people’s history and in some sense all of human history – of God sending prophets to warn the people and those people ignoring or persecuting those messengers rather than heed God’s direction into fuller lives.
What does the King in the parable do? First, he goes on a revenge tour, ordering the city destroyed (again a shade to the destruction of the temple). Then he orders everyone else in to the party, the good and the bad, without judgment – anyone and everyone off the street, the out-of-town tourist, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the merchants, the sick, the curious, the poor, the foreigner, the migrant worker, the refugee, the drag show performer, the death row inmate, the thief, the gangster, and even the pastor wearing nothing but swimming trunks.
And the party begins without the invited guests.
This seems like a clear parable at this point – God’s plan of salvation extends far beyond the imaginations of many who follow the Creator. God is setting a feast – and this feast will be inclusive, gracious, generous. A true celebration. How could anyone dare reject it? We got the point, Jesus. When you invite us to the party, click on the RSVP link, right?
And now we come to the part that has puzzled me all week.
The King is walking through observing all of the festivities and notices one partygoer who is out of place, one who is not dressed appropriately for the occasion, which we aren’t told exactly why. Over-dressed? Under-dressed? The King questions this guest and tosses him out on the street, using this metaphor of an outer darkness to signify one who is cast out and away from God’s presence.
Now, is Jesus telling us God’s reign will have a dress code?
No, no, no.
Here are two, just two since there may be more, possibilities:
Dr. Kimberly Wagner of Princeton says that this strange moment in the parable indicates those who may have said “yes” to the way of Jesus and yet never fully put the holy clothes on. These are those who cry out “Lord, Lord” but do not live the way of Jesus. These are those who fake the life of faith perhaps or never quite grasp it. Remember our past two weeks of scripture – these are those who claim to know Christ but do not practice and embody forgiveness, who do not share generously with what God has blessed them with.
Indeed, Jesus often reminds his disciples that the way of the cross is difficult.
I think about Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail where he chides the moderate Christians. I only learned a few years back that the letter was a response to a statement released by a group of “moderate” and “reasonable” churches in Birmingham who tried to encourage Dr. King, that though they were on his side, urged him not to come to their city, not to cause too much of a ruckus. How many Christians have pursued Jesus through their life but in the end shirk away or hide their heavenly wardrobe in a moment of crisis?
When have we Christians chosen to be quiet rather than proclaim who we are? Are those the ones getting kicked out of the party?
But the other lens to think about this story that really energizes me comes from Brite Divinity professor Dr. Lance Pape who suggests maybe it's more than discipleship. This party that the King is throwing for his son is literally the biggest party in human history. The food is the best. The music is incredible. The atmosphere is joyous.
And here comes one wandering through the crowd with attire that insults God and God’s people.
How dare you be invited to this party that turns the world upside down… and act like it’s the worst thing ever to happen to you.
Here the invitation is not so much to think and dwell on all the ways that we do not measure up, giving in to the anxiety-centered world in which we live, but celebrate that we were invited in the first place. Celebrate that God’s graciousness have flung open the doors to this festival – celebrate that the abundance of God includes you and me and each of us. How could we show up in anything less than our flashiest, silliest party attire? How else could we not shout with joy and cut a rug like there is no one watching?
This is challenging to as we think about the laws being debated across our country in various locations that would ban “drag shows” or “police” what people wear, often by folks who self-proclaim as followers of Jesus. Yet note that in this parable, those invited off the street may have had no idea or no wardrobe to change into. In some way, then, dressing as who we really are, vulnerable and open, is part of what it means to celebrate alongside God in the fullness of Creation.
Indeed, to be part of this heavenly community Jesus is creating is not an invitation to more worry, fear, judgment, and anxiety – it opens us to a joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. Our invitation is to live it – to walk it – to embody it in, not hide it.
Dr. Pape goes on to say, “The doors of the kin-dom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all. But once you come in, there are standards. You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”
In other words, maybe a swimming suit and beach clothes is the right kind of clothes to wear to worship, because there is a party unfolding in God's reign, and we are invited.
When I was in college, I had the privilege to serve with a praise team on a ministry called Torch, which serves juveniles who are locked up for crimes, for getting in trouble, in detention centers. We would go out for a weekend once or twice a year and invite these young people to experience an inter-generational community that cared for them and loved them. One of those highlights and climaxes of the event was on the second day. A speaker would get up and share some of their faith journey and tell these young people about the abundant, gracious, inclusive love of Jesus, even to those who may have messed up, who may have fallen prey to this anxiety-induced world. And then we dim the lights and sing a simple song, “You are loved, you are beautiful. You’re a gift of God, God’s own Creation.” And then volunteers would come out with small cakes lit with birthday candles for each of these young men.
Their faces, wrapped in the glow of those flickering candles, were something else. Some of them had never even had a birthday cake before. When the lights came on, most wiped away tears and began to dig in with a big smile on their face. The party was on. But others just sat there, refusing to blow out the candle, basking in this precious moment when they felt truly and wholly loved.
They had received an invitation and said yes.
Beloved, have you received the invitation? How will you respond? How will you live your life differently? And doesn't that make it a little more interesting when we invite others to know they are loved or welcome them alongside us to worship in this sacred space and hour? We aren't inviting them to any old celebration – we are inviting them to the greatest celebration of all.
What are the ways Church of the Foothills is called to continue to create those kinds of moments in the lives of each other and our neighbors, to remind each other that life is a gift and God invites each of us into the celebration of abundance?
Thanks be to God.