Sermon
R.S.V.P.
Thomas E.S. (Ted) Miller
October 9, 2011

R.S.V.P.  Respondez s’il vous plait!

Sometimes we say we are coming and we fail to make it, other times we forget to respond and calling at the last minute begging to be included. Maybe because there is so much going on in the world these days, people often forget to RSVP. A host assumes it is because of the frantic pace of life and not because the guests are holding out in case something better comes along. In the case of the King in this morning’s parable, it seems he had already sent out the “save the date” cards – and all that was supposedly needed was a reminder. For whatever reason, and Matthew doesn’t clarify, one after another the guests drop away which sets up the point of the parable just read.

This is one of those Parables of the Kingdom that Matthew is so fond of weaving through his Gospel. A related parable is the one from last week about the Vineyard Owner who provides a beautiful setting for his tenant workers who, never-the-less, refuse to pay him the portion of the harvest which is his due as the owner. He sends a series of agents to collect what is his, and each time they are rebuffed. Finally, he sends his only son. When the tenants see him coming, they surround him and beat him, throwing him outside the walls where they kill him. This morning's parable follows in a similar vein. The issue is a combination of attitude, commitment, and performance.

 A great feast is being offered; the tradition is clear. An invitation to such a feast is an opportunity for a gracious king to gather his grateful subjects around him. There is a wonderful painting in one of the palaces in Vienna of such a feast. Empress Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is having a party to celebrate the wedding of her son, the future Emperor Joseph the II. At the wedding feast, in addition to the very large royal family, 300 people were invited to attend, but not to eat, just to stand and quietly watch as the royals ate. It was apparently considered a great honor, and it is said that the feast went on for five hours. That is a lot of standing!

Those who first heard this parable would have understood the honor being accorded to the guests who are invited to the wedding feast of the King's son. Not just to watch, but to participate. But, those who were invited did not come...offered no excuse. At this point we need to realize that it doesn't pay to be too literal about the events that take place in this parable. These are highly symbolic stories...grounded in everyday occurrences, but pointing beyond the occurrences themselves. The story says what happens next is that the king puts out orders to hunt down those who have offended him and put their cities to the torch. He is not pleased. But the meat is already on the grill, the potatoes are boiling and the bread is already baked. The party is going to happen and the king sends out his servants to collect sufficient folks to fill that banquet room. He finally packs the hall, but the folk who are there are a very ragged lot, some good and some bad, the parable says.

Here is a newer parable which might help us get the point: A bishop and a young used car salesman were going together for a test drive when the unthinkable happened and they had an accident. Both of them were killed. When they got to heaven, St. Peter was standing at the pearly gates and welcomed them both inside. A great crowd had gathered and a shout went up and several angels hoisted the used car salesman up on their shoulders and paraded him through the streets paved with gold. There was music and a wonderful banquet table was laid at which the young man was the guest of honor. Finally, the bishop could contain himself no longer. He had been in service to the church and to his Lord all his life. He sought out and found St. Peter in the crowd and pulling him aside he said, "What's going on here? I have been a man of God all my life and no one is paying any attention to me. This young man, however, is being celebrated like some hero." "Well," said St. Peter, "You've got to understand. There are lots of bishops around up here; but this is the first used car salesman we have ever had!"

Instinctively, I think, we know that within the reign of God, things are not ever going to be, as they seem. God has God's own way about doing things. We have heard enough parables in our time so that we are not really amazed by the surprise ending. That must be why there are so many jokes about folks standing at the pearly gates. We expect a little twist, when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, things are often not as they at first seem.

The Kingdom of Heaven is going to be peopled with folks who may not have been on the guest list, if we had compiled it. What about ourselves – will we be there?

Returning to Matthew, let's look for a minute at the wedding garment. The King comes into the hall where all have assembled and spots a guest who is not wearing the proper wedding outfit. From a literal sense, it would seem highly harsh and unloving to have the guest cast out because he didn't bother to follow the dress code. Setting that feeling aside for a moment, let's ask what is evoked with the action of putting something on.

The commentators have lots of different ideas but for the most part, they focus on the act of getting newly dressed as symbol of response. The invitation is offered to the feast...how will we respond? Just showing up is not all that is expected. One goes to the feast putting on the garb of new life. One of the passages I often read at weddings is that from Colossians 3 in which Paul says, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love..."

 Barbara Brown Taylor, preacher and seminary professor notes[1], "Like everything else in this story - the wedding robe has a deeper meaning. It is not just a white linen tunic embroidered with gold thread. It is a whole way of life - one that honors the king, one that recognizes the privilege of being called into his presence - even if the invitation arrives at the last minute. The underdressed guest's mistake was not that he showed up in shorts. It was that he showed up short on righteousness and thought no one would notice - least of all the king."

 Getting into the meat of it - through God's grace, God bids all welcome to the divine hospitality: rich and poor, bad and good alike. The Doors are Open to all through the circumstances of this parable… the invitations have been issued, why even the bushes have been beaten so that it is more than the usual suspects at this particular feast. Yet – some are not there.

A pastor recently described a phone call similar to many I have received in my time in ministry.

“This is Bethany and I want to have my children baptized” comes the voice of a stranger on the phone.  “I would like you to do my children.”

“That’s wonderful Bethany, let’s make an appointment to talk about their baptism, when are you available?”

Bethany is immediately suspicious. “What do we have to talk about? Are you going to tell me I have to join your church to have my kids baptized?"

My response would be something to the effect that is what baptism is, joining the church.

 "No, no, I don’t want to belong to a church. I just want to baptize my kids. All you ministers want to turn this into something complicated. Just forget the whole thing."

We don’t charge money for baptisms – you cannot buy them – if that’s your concern, Bethany, don’t worry. God’s grace is free. But don’t kid yourself, either. Don’t think you can hang out at the party without putting on a wedding garment. Don’t think you can have God without God having you. This is the paradox of grace, Bethany. God’s love costs us nothing, and at the same time, it costs us everything. If you just want to be on the guest list without giving yourself to the party, if you want salvation without commitment, if you want grace without discipleship, then I can’t baptize your children.[2]

Of course the conversation never gets this far – Bethany has hung up. These are those who take the invitation lightly. Wrapped up in their own agendas, so full of their own plans for self and family that they have left no room for the spirit to be at work, these folks set aside the invitation. It isn't God's judgment that keeps them out. (God's love is still unconditional.) They exclude themselves by virtue of their own self selection. I often encounter the same phenomenon around weddings when the bride and groom are happy to spend some extraordinary amounts of time making decisions about invitations and decorations, attendants and flowers. Yet, when I request a few hours of their time to talk about what it means to be married – how they will deal with life and each other after the wedding party is over, they often balk. 

Like the man who has failed to put on the wedding garment in the parable, many people are not ready to accept a role in life that might involve making some adjustments, changes – giving as well as receiving. If we are going to "put on the new person," we need to put on new clothes (new attitudes and behaviors). Woody Allen may be right in the quote that usually has been attributed to him: "Seventy percent of success in life is just showing up." But the other thirty percent is participating fully in the event once we’re there. If we’re not willing to do that, then maybe we haven’t really accepted the invitation.

These are the people in your typical church congregation, for example, who never really do enter into the community, but remain aloof, contributing what they will, when they want to. What they miss and never understand is the rhythm of life together with others, the give and take, and the joy of growing through ever changing relationships with others. 

The Door is open –the feast is prepared – it is now up to the guests to determine if they will enter into the banquet hall.

And the question for us is, what does it take to make a good party? The same thing it takes to make a good church. [3]

Folks who come together not just to get, but to give something. People who sing every song as if it were their favorite. People who laugh as if there’s a happy ending ahead. People who love as if they’ve never been hurt and dance as if nobody’s looking.

People who discover themselves by losing themselves in the depths of God’s unsearchable love. People who will put on the garments of joy and join the celebration.

R.S.V.P. Respondez s’il vous plait. Who is on God’s guest list? We are all in this together. The Door is open, let’s enter the feast!

 



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is an allegory in

her book Home By Another Way

 

[2] This dialogue is the combination of many I have had, and one described by H. Michael Brewer, Blue Ash Presbyterian Church, in a sermon posted on the web.

 

[3] The language I am using to answer the question, “What does it take to make a good party?” is taken from the same sermon by Michael Brewer, quoted above.

Last Published: December 7, 2011 3:39 PM