God: The Original Party Animal

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 25:1-10, Matthew 22:1-14

Here in this place, new light is streaming
now is the darkness vanished away,
see, in this space, our fears and our dreamings,
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in the lost and forsaken
gather us in the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken
we shall arise at the sound of our name.
Gather Us In

I’m not really a big fan of parties. I’m not sure if I’ll fit in or if I’ll say the right thing or do the right thing. I’m afraid I’ll be over-dressed or under-dressed. I’m afraid of making a serious social faux pas – of being terribly embarrassed by some word or deed that I will say or do that will become the stuff of legend for the hosts. They’ll tell the story over and over again about this woman who came to their party and did the unthinkable – the unforgivable.

I go home from parties going over what I said or did, looking for any hint that I might have done something wrong. Whenever there’s a party, there’s always party remorse for me.

But what terrifies me most of all, is hosting a party. I want my guests to have fun, sure. But, the biggest fear is that I’ll put a party together, send out invitations and no one will show up. The king in today’s gospel reading had this experience. He prepared an incredible party – a wedding feast for his son – and sent out invitations. No one would come. He tried again to invite those he had chosen, only this time, they beat and even killed those sent to invite them. Now, thankfully, I’ve never had anyone die over an invitation to a party and unlike this king, I’ve never launched a war against anyone who refused to come to the party!

In the end, the king opens his doors to all who will come in. He tells his servants “Go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” They gather in everyone they find, the good and the bad, and fill the hall with guests. Just as God threw a big feast for the Israelites, Jesus promises that God will throw a party where we’re all invited – this is the realm of heaven.

God is the original party animal and he invites us all to gather.

We are the young – our lives are a mystery
we are the old – who yearns for you face.
we have been sung throughout all of history
called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in the rich and the haughty
gather us in the proud and the strong
give us a heart so meek and so lowly
give us the courage to enter the song.

Ask a preacher what they like most about the sermon writing process and they’ll most likely change the subject – but perhaps not before rolling their eyes and making choking or whimpering noises. Answering the question would mean revealing the secret that often sermon writing is – on the list of enjoyable things in life – somewhere between a root canal and limb amputation. Oh, some sermons come easy – flowing onto the screen like dictation. Others, like this one, makes the preacher wish for that root canal, knowing that compared to writing the sermon – it would tickle.

I struggled daily with this message, late into the week, until I realized the problem – I really hate this Matthew passage. On one level it speaks to me – God, the original party animal, invites us to an incredible feast – the good and the bad gathered together in love and community. On another level, it’s a terrible, horrible story filled with violence and terror. Those invited to the party don’t just say no – they kill the messengers sent to them. The king, rightfully angry about this, launches war against those who killed his servants. They have launched war over a refused party invitation. Then, he has a guy bound hand and foot and thrown “into the outer darkness” simply because he didn’t follow the dress code. I guess there was a “no shoes, no shirt, no service” sign somewhere. But, how petty this king must be! And to think that Jesus is likening God to this petty king – it’s almost too much for me to bear. This story doesn’t match up with my conception of God at all – and I don’t like it. I’ll take that root canal now, please, because I don’t want to do a sermon about this passage.

But, this is the beauty of the lectionary – it forces you to deal with passages you’d otherwise skim over and breathe a sigh of relief that you never have to preach it. So, I struggled with this passage instead of just skipping over it. I read numerous commentaries looking for a spark – anything that I might resonate with in this passage. I got nothing.

Commentaries, in fact, seemed hell bent to ignore the violence of this passage or explain it away. Compare the parallel parable Luke tells in 14:16-24 and you will find none of the violence. Instead, that party is a happy one where those who decline invitations simply make excuses and no one gets killed. So why is Matthew’s version so violent? The commentaries say the bit about the king launching a war against those who refused to come is a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE – proving that God has turned his back on the chosen ones – the Jews.

While that certainly may give context to the story and explain away the more terrifying parts of Matthew’s version of this parable, it still leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. Is God, the original party animal, really this violent – this petty to those who refuse to gather? If God is, then who can blame those who didn’t gather when they were first invited?

Despite our questions – despite our misgivings – God, the original party animal, invites us to gather.

Here we will take the wine and the water
here we will take the bread of new birth
here you shall call your sons and your daughters
call us anew to be salt of the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion
give us to eat the bread that is you
nourish us well and teach us to fashion
lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

As Friday approached and I continued to ponder this dastardly passage of scripture – I found wisdom from author and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor. She tells the story of a loggerhead turtle she saw on a trip to the beach. The turtle had come ashore to lay her eggs, but had lost her way back to the ocean. When Taylor found her the next morning the turtle was exhausted, far from the water and slowly baking to death. She poured water on the poor creature and covered her with sea oats before finding a park ranger to help the massive turtle get back to the water.

Taylor looked on in horror as the ranger turned the turtle on her back, “wrapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to a trailer hitch on his jeep.” He then proceeded to yank the turtle forward – her mouth filling with sand and her neck bending to the breaking point. After reaching the ocean, the turtle was motionless for a little while until the waves began to break over her shell. Finally, she shuffled off into the ocean.

Taylor writes: “Watching her swim slowly away and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes, I reflected that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.

“Our hope, through all our own terrors, is that we are being saved. But this does not mean we lie down before the terrors. For as long as we have strength to fight, it is both our nature and our privilege to do so. Sometimes God’s blessing does not come until daybreak, after a full night of emptying ourselves and wandering in the wrong direction. Our job is to struggle with the terrors, neither surrendering nor stealing away until they have yielded their blessings.”

Suddenly, the terror in Matthew’s passage makes sense to me. Yes, we are invited to the party – every last one of us. Often, we refuse the invitation – daily we refuse God’s grace, love and mercy – and often our lives turn into terror, like war has been declared on us by some unseen foe. Sometimes we receive the invitation, but we’re horrified by the others at the party – good and bad mingling together. But, this party is God’s realm – and though we are promised a daily invitation to the festivities – we are never promised a life free of terror.

I was watching an episode of House the other day. I love the character of Gregory House – a gruff, seemingly uncaring doctor who insists on saving his patients, even if he doesn’t like them. That’s a parable of God I can understand and immediately grasp. But, House wasn’t in this particular scene. His protégé, Dr. Chase, was talking with a nun who was dying of some unknown illness. The nun was afraid to die and Chase told her she had a choice between faith and fear.

“Either way, I’m still going to die,” the nun protested.

“Yes,” Chase told her, “but faith changes how you experience your death.”

It’s impossible to know if the loggerhead turtle was experiencing faith or fear while being violently towed back to the safety of the ocean. I doubt she had a choice – but we do. What Jesus is telling us in this parable is that while we cannot choose to avoid terror in our lives, we can choose how to experience it. We can either be afraid of the terrible events in our lives or we can view them through the lens of faith – knowing that often what seems violent is leading to our ultimate redemption.

Take the man found not wearing the wedding garment in this parable. How terrifying it must have been for him to be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness for something as petty as a fashion faux pas. But, the clothes we wear in God’s realm are very important. Clothing is often a metaphor for righteousness in the Bible.

We are told in Colossians 3:12 to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” And, 1 Peter 5:5 advises that “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” Clothes really do make the Christian in this sense. This man found not wearing the proper clothes was a party crasher – someone who did not understand that the realm of God is open to all but it’s not a free for all. If your experience of God has not fundamentally transformed you, then you’re not ready for the party.

That’s not to say that you’ll never be ready. The violence done to the man not wearing the proper clothes can be the source of his salvation – a terror that ultimately leads to life giving redemption. Whenever we feel tossed out of God’s party – we are not tossed for all eternity. If we were then grace would be a moot point. Instead – when we find ourselves in the outer darkness of life we must head to the closet to reassess our wardrobe. Are we clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience? If not, we need God’s eye for the wedding party guy to re-clothe us in holiness. And the good news is: that’s always available to us.

Hear the call today – come to God’s party – eat, drink and be merry, whether you’re good or bad, no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, there is a place at the table for you. Clothe yourself in God’s radical love and hospitality. Have faith and do not fear when you feel cast out into the outer darkness – for there will always be another invitation.

God, the original party animal, invites us to gather.

Not in the dark of buildings confining
not in some heaven, light years away
but here in this place, the new light is shining
now is the kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever
gather us in and make us your own
gather us in all peoples together
fire of love in our flesh and our bone.