Can you believe that this text–this parable that ends with a man being thrown out of a party for wearing the wrong attire was the first text I ever had to preach on in seminary? Can you believe that this was the story I first had to wrestle with? A story that ends with a man sinking into the infamous outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? It’s a wonder I didn’t throw in the towel that day 12 years ago and give up on this whole preaching thing, for where is the good news in that??? I don’t remember what I said in that sermon, and for your sake you’ll be glad I’m not repeating it today, but I do remember this: This is a challenge of a text.
It’s a tough text. We might as start there. It seems so harsh, so contrary to what we believe about the God we call gracious and merciful and contrary to our “Loving Not Judging” mission, which pretty much says that if you show up, we don’t care what you wear. If the kingdom of heaven really is like this, it’s no wonder some people want nothing to do with it, which means, yes, this is a fragile text and needs to be handled with great care.
We can handle it with great care, however, while also remembering that it is yet another of Jesus’ parables–that is, it’s a story, a metaphor. Just as Jesus is not talking about a literal wedding reception here, he is also not really talking about clothing. This is not an episode of “What Not to Wear.” You need not worry if you’re dressed in your Sunday best. What he is talking about, however, are the implications of being invited to what the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments calls the “feast of the universe.” The heavenly banquet. Jesus is suggesting that the invitation makes a difference, or that it should make a difference. It makes a difference not only at the end of time when we will be gathered with all the saints of every time and place, but it makes a difference now.
Anyone who has lived in anticipation of something good knows what I’m talking about. When I was young, for example, and I knew my grandparents were coming to visit from out of town, I would sit by the front window waiting for their car to pull into the driveway. The anticipation of their arrival changed what I did that day. Or, when Ian and I got the call that Oliver would be coming to live with us, we spent the next two weeks preparing for his arrival–painting his room, buying clothes and diapers. He changed our lives even before he had come home. Being invited to the banquet naturally means you dress a little differently that day. If you don’t, it’s as if you don’t really grasp the significance of it.
But of course Jesus is not talking about literal clothing here; he’s talking about actions. And as a way to demonstrate that I want to tell you about my friend Luis. I met Luis this past week at our NC Synod Convocation, a continuing education event for pastors and other leaders from across North Carolina. Luis came as part of a delegation from the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica, the companion, or partner, synod to our NC Synod. As a partner synod, we’re supposed to be in dialogue with one another, and in support of and prayer for one another. Interestingly, that church is not recognized as a church by the government because the Roman Catholic Church is the official, and therefore only church in the eyes of the Costa Rican government. So the Lutherans have to call themselves an association in order to exist.
The Lutheran Church in Costa Rica is absolutely incredible. It’s young–only 30 years old–and small, but exists entirely for people who have been marginalized. In fact, they have three primary areas of ministry: indigenous people in Costa Rica, migrants fleeing from Nicaragua, and–get this–the LBGT community that remains oppressed by both the government and the government’s church. Sitting on rocking chairs on the porch of the dining hall at Lutheridge one evening and surrounded by the night air, Luis told me, through a translator, his story.
He is gay. LGBTQ people in Costa Rica, by law, cannot work, so Luis married a woman, as many gay men do, in order to “prove” that he wasn’t gay so that he could get a job. He spent at least a year in the hospital for severe depression and his mother told him that he might as well die because, she told him, he’s going to hell anyway. But Luis says that, while in the hospital, he had a vision. Jesus visited him and told him that that he loved him, not because of his sexuality, but because of his identity as a child of God. At that moment, you see, Luis heard Jesus’ invitation to the heavenly banquet for him and for all God’s children, and now he spends his time and energy serving the church and ensuring that other people know that the invitation is for them as well. The invitation to what is to come changed him and continues to change him as it influences how he spends his days.
Why do we do what we do? Why do have a mission of “Loving Not Judging” that more often than not translates into social justice? Because we have heard Jesus’ wide invitation to the heavenly banquet, the feast to come. Remember? It’s for people both good and bad, everyone off the streets. That invitation, and living in anticipation of that great feast, changes what we do here and now. How can it not, if we take it seriously?
No, Jesus is not talking about literal clothing here, but the church has, in a way, held on to clothing as a symbol of this invitation. The ancient church used to give the newly baptized a simple white garment to wear, signifying that the invitation heard in baptism is an invitation to live in anticipation of the banquet, a living-out that culminates in working for peace and justice in all the earth. Our albs are a descendant of that original baptismal garment, a sign that God’s promises make a difference in what we do here and now and how we live our days.
There are many ways in which the promise of that heavenly banquet changes what we do, in which it gives us new clothes to wear. For one, it opens up this table and this feast to really be foretaste of the feast that is to come where everyone is welcome. And today, I’m feeling particularly compelled by the invitation to the banquet to stand in solidarity with Luis and with his community in Costa Rica and to explore ways in which we–Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, NC–might be in dialogue with them in order to support them and pray for them and perhaps also to share the promise of hope with them that oppression will one day cease, for I’m convinced that this is what it means to hear the invitation and to live in anticipation of the banquet.
So yes, Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet is a terrible story and one that is fragile and does need to be handled with great care. But it’s also one that reminds us of God’s wide invitation and that gives us hope as we live in anticipation of that great feast to come. We are a congregation dressed for the banquet. The feast is ready to begin. So come, join in. It’s time to party.