Friday, April 29, 2011

Invited Guests

“The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
-Matthew 22:8-10 (NIV)

Unless you’ve spent the last few months shipwrecked on a deserted island, you probably know that there was a big wedding this week.
    At around 6 AM Chicago time on Friday morning, Prince William, the presumptive future King of England, married Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in London. There were nearly two thousand guests invited inside the Abbey for the ceremony, and another million lined the processional route outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Kate and William. Two billion, or more, by some accounts, are estimated to have watched on TV or the internet, which would, I suppose, make it the most watched event in history.    
    The guests inside Westminster Abbey, in their formal attire, and the ritual of the Anglican  wedding ceremony, contrasted sharply with the bystanders outside. England observed a national holiday for the wedding, and the streets were seemingly filled with revelers. They draped themselves in Union Jacks and flags of other nations, wore William and Kate masks, and cheered the royal couple and their union boisterously. They camped out overnight, hoping just to get a glimpse of William and Kate. I wonder how many of those spectators, at some point today, wished for just a moment that they’d received an invitation and could join the festivities inside the Abbey, or the reception at Windsor Castle.
    Jesus once (at least once) told a story about a royal wedding - the wedding of a prince. In his story, though, the spectators don’t line the streets and wave at the carriage as the prince and his bride ride by. No one seems very excited at all, in fact. In fact, when it comes time to celebrate, the response seems to be a collective yawn. Social event of the century? Hardly. The invited guests are too busy with their fields and their businesses to be bothered even to attend. Some are downright hostile to the servants sent to invite them, and some even kill the servants. It’s an intentionally upside-down story - a king who can’t find enough guests to fill the dining room for his son’s wedding banquet. Who could imagine?
    Refusing a king has consequences, though, and in this story the consequences are severe. In punishment for their refusal of his invitation, the king destroys the ungrateful guests and burns their city. Declining the king’s gracious invitation has deadly repercussions in Jesus’ story.
    But then the king tries again. He sends out his servants with new instructions: “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” Just what the commoners who lined the streets of London this morning would have loved: for Queen Elizabeth herself to come out and personally invite them to the festivities. The king’s servants do what he asks them to. They invite anyone they see: rich or poor, attractive or ugly, healthy or sick -- “both good and bad,” the story goes. Because the king wants the banquet hall full in celebration of his son’s happiness.
    The story, of course is not about a wedding banquet at all. Like so many of Jesus’ stories, it’s about the way things are with the Kingdom of God. Stories like this help us to get a handle on an idea that seems very abstract to us: living in a world where God’s will is always done, in everything and by everyone. The fallen world we live in tells us that kind of world doesn’t exist, and never will. But Jesus came to tell us that it does exist, and to make it possible for us to be a part of it, and to invite us in right now. The story of commoners being invited to the royal wedding speaks volumes of the nature of the Kingdom, and of the grace of the King.
    “The Kingdom of God is a party,” said a friend of mine once, years ago. We’d do well to remind ourselves of that when we start taking ourselves too seriously, or when we argue a little too long and a little too angrily over some small point of doctrine, or feel just a little too self-righteous. And we’d especially do well to remind ourselves of it when the burden of the kingdom seems too heavy, its weight too much to bear. We’d do well to remind ourselves that, however long and arduous the journey may be, and whatever we may have to give up to get there, what we’ve been invited to after all is a celebration. To receive God’s invitation to share in his kingdom and be preoccupied only with the trivialities that pass for fields and businesses in our lives is a dead giveaway that we haven’t really heard the invitation at all. It’s to turn up our noses at the gracious invitation of a God who only wants our presence at his table.
    It’s a fact, of course, that the presence of the commoners at the wedding in Jesus’ story had  something to do with the failure of the intended guests to realize what they had been offered. Whether we read that as an implicit commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the chief priests, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law, or as something else, the important point for us it that it’s possible to reject the invitation - even for the very people who you’d think would be most likely to appreciate it. It’s possible that we can get so caught up in “fields” and “business,” in the urgent press of mundane human life, that we hear the King’s invitation as just another item on our already-crowded “to-do” lists. Just another demand on our time. When we shut ourselves off from Jesus, or consider following him as just another burden to bear, we disregard his invitation to enter the Kingdom and share in its life.
    But may that never be. May we realize what we’ve been offered, and the price paid to secure that invitation for us. May we turn aside from the many things that distract us and follow him as he beckons us from the streets, through the gates, and into the palace. May we rejoice as he takes away our beggars’ rags and replaces them with clothes fit for a royal wedding. And may we celebrate as we take our seats and dig into the banquet his Father has laid out before us.
    William and Kate who?

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