Updated: Aug 2, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Deborah White
Most cultures have formal rituals for marking important relationships. The signing of treaties between nations is often accompanied by ceremonies that include music and feasting. In the Episcopal Church we formalize the relationship between a new priest and her flock with a Celebration of New Ministry, and we seat our bishops with great spectacle. Kings, queens, presidents and emperors have historically been anointed, crowned or inaugurated, ratifying the oaths they take to protect and serve their people. In American society, however, the most well-known and popular relationship ritual of all is the wedding. Although most of the traditions we associate with weddings are relatively new – white dresses, “here comes the bride,” and wedding rings come to mind – many people believe a “perfect wedding” must include all these things – and usually more. Weddings bring out strong emotions in people – which is why they are often so fraught. From “Bride Wars” to “Bridezillas” we are fascinated as we watch seemingly self-assured and competent people become mean, weeping, screaming raw nerves when faced with the pressure of planning “the most important day of their lives.”
The belief that one symbolic action can define who we are is at the very heart of the problem with weddings (and other rituals). Far too often the cosmetic details of the event become more important than the reason the ceremony exists. We forget that a wedding is not an excuse to dress up and eat well. It is a ritual – or, in the church, a rite- that celebrates a much more important blessing: two people committing to try to love one another –and others – in the name of God.
The prospect of living in loving relationship is daunting, and we can get very confused about what God wants from us. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to explain to couples that 1 Corinthians 13, which states, among other things, that, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” is not a set of reasonable goals for their relationship. In fact, it’s not about human love at all; it is about the love of God. The task of marriage is not to try to love our partner like God does. The purpose of all Christian relationship is to celebrate the love we have received from God by sharing it with others. Love is the core of Christian belief: Ten Commandments; 613 laws in the Torah; seven deadly sins to avoid – they all boil down to the same great commission given to us by Christ himself: Love God and love your neighbor.
It feels like this shouldn’t be that hard – and yet every morning when I watch the news, check social media, and get on the highway, it seems like an impossible task. The truth is that I am happy to love my neighbor – unless it’s that guy. I love God – but obviously not the same God as her. It gives me joy to pray for others – except the ones I think don’t deserve my prayers. If you too have thoughts like these then, congratulations; you are human. You have discovered that following the way of Christ is hard. You cannot phone it in – and that’s what today’s gospel is about.
Jesus’s story could be called “The Parable of the Wedding Crasher.” It contains one of the most famous verses in scripture – “for many are called, but few are chosen” –but it is tacked on to the end of one of the most complex tales Jesus ever told. This mysterious and frankly confusing phrase has been used to exclude people from Christian churches for millennia. Whenever church folks have decided that someone is unfit for their company in one way or another, this proverb has provided them with an acceptably vague way to get rid of them. But there is no evidence that this statement is about fitness for inclusion in the community of Christ. Jesus never rejected anyone who came to him with a sincere heart – nor should we. This reference is not about whether Jesus invites us in, but rather what it means to follow Jesus once we have accepted his call. It is about the dangers of selfishness and hypocrisy.
Like last week’s gospel, this parable is an analogy filled with familiar characters. The king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (Jesus) represents God. This banquet is a gift. It is a celebration of the relationship between the king and his people. It is an honor to be invited – and yet none of those who are asked will come. Even when reminded of everything the king has done to provide for them, the people not only reject the offer, but mock the king’s generosity, responding with violence and anger. Understandably, the king – God – is furious. God has given everything to her chosen people – but they have forgotten him. They no longer recognize or honor the importance of their covenant relationship to God. They have instead become too focused on the mechanics of their religion, believing that their rituals and traditions – rather than the relationship they represent – will save them. They have rejected God’s mercy so, in response, God chooses new people – those who want to be in relationship with him. It doesn’t matter if these people are good or bad. It only matters that they have chosen God and seek to be in relationship with God.
So far, the story is consistent with what we know about God, who unfailingly upholds promises to humanity, even when we forget and sin against her. Then, as Jesus’s tale seems to be nearing its end, it takes a strange and unsettling turn. The king notices a man who is not wearing the right outfit – and not only does he kick him out, but he punishes him severely, binding him and condemning him to “the outer darkness.” This seems very unfair. Why should a simple social faux pas be a matter for such a harsh punishment? He was, after all, only responding to an invitation for a free meal.
I would suggest that this is actually the problem, because in Jesus’s allegory, the wedding dress represents the man’s commitment to the way of Christ. He has shown up, but he isn’t there for the right reason. He has not responded to God’s invitation to be in relationship – only to the ancient equivalent of a great party invite. He wants to have a perfect ritual without having to try to live up to the commitment that the ritual celebrates. He believes and revels in the power of God in Jesus Christ, but does not want to have to live according to his way of love.
When we mistake rituals that commemorate our relationship with God for living in relationship with God, we hurt and enrage God. We become like the children of Israel who, out of fear and anxiety, lost faith and built and worshipped a pale substitute for the God who had saved them. When we, like the leaders of the Philippian church, get caught up in our differences and forget what unites us, we deny the goodness and mercy that God given to all creation. Whenever we choose to base our faith on earthly privilege, exclusion, and our own safety and comfort, we are demonstrating belief not in God, but in human interpretations of God.
God has chosen us. We are part of the beloved community of Christ. Stand firm in the Lord, then, my beloved, taking the risk of trying to love as you are loved. Rejoice in the Lord – always and together. Do not worry about anything. There are things in this world that are true and honorable; just and pure; commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Let us think on those things. Let us be part of those things – and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN.