The blog's 100th post! Preached at St Christopher's, October 9, 2011.
When was the last time you attended a party for which you had to decipher the dress code printed in small, black, italic letters on the invitation?
If you're like me, it's been a while. I have to look up the different definitions.
Dress casual. Party casual. Black tie. Ladies, do you keep a formal dress ready at home? Men, let me ask you: do you keep a tux handy?
This morning’s gospel is about just such a party, and invitations go out to the people who should expect to be invited to nice parties like this one. The frat house princes. The queens and the debutantes. Their parents. The rich and well to do. The preppies. The politicians. The players. The ones that, if it were your party, you wouldn’t want to leave out. The ones who maybe stand to reward you in terms of social capital, if you are a person in the market for that sort of thing. In middle school we called them the cool kids. The top of the popular pyramid. The main attractions.
So there’s a big party out, a really big party, a who’s who of coolness, but the cool kids say no. They don’t come. And you can say no when you’re cool because everyone knows that you could go to the party if you really wanted to. If it was cool enough for you. Sometimes it makes you cooler not to go. Not only are you in the in-crowd, you are the in-crowd, you define it. You put the so-called in-crowd on your wait-list. Leave them wanting more. It’s enough to know that you could go if you wanted to go. Because you’re somebody.
And the king in Jesus’s story this morning is disgusted. He gets word that the cool kids have disrespected the ones who delivered the invitations. Put them on hold. Even hurt them. Rumor that one hazing incident has gotten out of hand. Said somebody died. That they literally killed the messenger.
The king says forget ‘em.
The king says he’s got a party to throw, a Son to celebrate, and he doesn’t have any patience for the folks who think that if they’re good enough to be invited then they’re certainly good enough not to come if they’re busy. No, he doesn’t have patience. This isn’t about their being cool, their flaunting their stuff, what they did to deserve the invitation. This is about his Son. And the party he wants to have. With as many people as will come.
So he does the unthinkable. He invites the riffraff. The losers. The outcasts. Says, ‘bring ‘em in, let’s go!’ And because he’s inviting the riffraff, at least one Anglican commentary suggests that it's reasonable to imagine that he pulls out his own clothes and hands them out at the door: ‘Here, put this on, it’s on me, just for fun.’ Let’s live it up. Tonight will be special. And over there, try the wine, it’s vintage. The very best.
The cool kids said no. The story, for them was about them; no room for a party. If they thought of coming at all, it was only as a favor to the king. The cool kids imagined themselves as gifts to the One who wanted to give them the world. Gracing grace with their presence.
So the riffraff show up and most put on the clothes. They put on the good garments per the king’s request. But one scrub gets caught. He likes his own clothes. His style isn’t fancy, but it is his style, he wants to leave his own distinctive mark on the gala. It’s the same reason the schools these days are leaning toward the uniforms. Drawing attention to one’s self can make a distraction. So like the folks who didn’t come, this man's first concern is himself, not primarily the celebrating of the Son the king adores.
It's a tragic comedy or comic tragedy, depending on how you come at it. The king has a party that he wants everyone to attend. The only qualifier for entrance is that no one is qualified. It’s the king who gives the invitation and hands out his own clothes. It’s only a problem for the ones who make an appeal of themselves. The ones who make idols out of things like their status, their busyness, their wealth, their power, and their individual preferences.
Jesus says that distinctions like these are not the basis for this party, for this Kingdom. And trying to make them so is to miss everything. It’s a gift.
So when the king gets fed up and finally tells them they can all go to hell, it’s clear that it’s not because that’s the desire of the king, but because the presumption of their hearts prevents their accepting the invitation to the feast for which they were made. The feast for which he alone can make them worthy. And he promises that he will.
When I was Assistant to the Rector at St Helena’s, Boerne, Father David and I hosted a four week October series on Wednesday nights, covering the basics of the Bible: eighty-five of us, coming together, each Wednesday night, discussing holy Scripture and how to approach it. A kind of Bible for beginners. We had skits and everything. It was fun. At the end of one session, after folks had broken up to go home, a member of the church confronted the two of us over what the man said was Father David’s bad habit of not preaching the “whole gospel.” “There is such a thing as hell,” the man said. “It’s real. You should preach it.”
I remember Father David’s answer, something more pastoral, but generally to the effect of, “Yes, there is such a thing as hell; and Jesus promises it most regularly, if not exclusively, to the folks who try to justify themselves, hold up their achievements, their fine clothes, and impress the living God apart from accepting the mercies of Jesus." A pause before he summarized: "Yes, there is a hell in Scripture, and it's mostly for the religious.”
Yikes. If it doesn’t, it should sting. It stung the Pharisees, too. They didn’t kill Jesus for being polite.
The Gospel is a party, and the party is grace - the free gift of God - and grace means letting go of all the cool points we thought we were saving for God. Get over yourself, come on in.
So, it’s still stewardship season, week two - remember, I won’t glaze over if you won’t glaze over, hang with me here - and let me say a quick thing about what I think I’m about to say: my job as preacher during stewardship season isn’t to trot out old statistics or talk about the financial needs of the parish or lock the doors behind you. You’ve got a Vestry for that. (Only kidding, Larry!) When the preacher stands before you in stewardship season, his or her job is to speak the Word that we gather around, even and especially when that Word makes the compelling case that generous giving increases your awareness and responsiveness to the love of God in your life.
So it’s the season of financial stewardship - you and me, gathering, listening around the Word he would have us proclaim, you and me remembering that stewardship is about more than just money, but never less than money, that God has an interest in all that we do with all that we have and all that we are. We’re talking financial stewardship when we encounter this gospel about self-justifying one’s existence, one’s entrance, into the Kingdom of God - you know, the cool points - and we’d be remiss not to observe at this point that money can be a fast track to cool points in lots of places:
In local and national politics, in social clubs, even prisons, bars, casinos, even dinner at the in-laws.
But not here.
Not the Church. Because we don’t sell tickets. Because you can’t buy the only grounds for your being here: here, where the only qualifier for you is receiving Jesus, putting on the garment of Christ.
You know this already: you’re not giving to get. You’re giving because he’s already invited you in, you said yes. You’ve found your place at the table. You’re giving because he’s already given you all that you need to enjoy the party of his Son forever.
At the early service, we remind ourselves of the overwhelming generosity of God at the Offertory. Instead of singing the Doxology, we say: All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
And because the thee can be confusing, we might say instead: “Lord, you give everything to us; even what we give to you comes from what you’ve given us.”
We’re not winning cool points; we’re becoming honest about ourselves, the world, and who we are. So we empty ourselves of all the things we’re not in order to receive the most important thing we are: we are children gifted by God, even with our lives, and most especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
We give back to God what is already God’s so that we might speak truthfully about who and whose we are, how it is we came to have things to give in the first place, and to empty ourselves of the rest. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.
And so when Rebekah and I talk about giving each year, we don’t talk about what others give or about our having given enough. It’s all his. The question for us is always how we can give in ways that make our lives more truthful: in ways that name that we are not self-made, but are utterly at the mercy of the living God who loves us with his whole self. In ways that make it easier to remember to forgive. In ways that can echo, feebly, the generosity of God.
In a sense, stewardship for Rebekah and me is a kind of spiritual house-cleaning: when we toss out the trash, the light comes in in ways that leave us wondering why we didn’t do it so much sooner.
So give. But not because it makes you cooler or more important. Give because it stands to make you more truthful about yourself. Give because it stands to let the light of the Gospel in all the way. Give because you need the reminding, and the party is now. Give because as much as you liked your old clothes, the garment before you is Christ.
The table is ready; the feast is for you. Come receive Jesus, and receiving him, put him on.