Before I start, I want to be sure to invite you to a celebration of a wedding. You don’t need to dress up. You really don’t need to make plans. The celebration is right after this service. It will be over in the courtyard, so you won’t have a commute. And don’t feel bad about not knowing the bride, Therese. She does not know you. She and her husband Ludwig died over 150 years ago. Their wedding was in 1810, but the original party was so good, the celebration was repeated the following year. Unless war or national crises interrupted, the festival has continued each year since.
Why should you come to this celebration? Perhaps not because of King Ludwig’s legacy. While he encouraged Bavaria’s industrial development, his rule became increasingly repressive. You will, of course, remember the Bavarian beer riots of 1844, triggered by Ludwig’s tax on beer. Rioters gained the upper hand until our king cut the price of beer by ten percent to calm the people down. Lesson: when ruling Germans, don’t mess with their beer. Shortly thereafter, during the 1848 wave of revolutions in Europe that resulted in many Germans emigrating to America, Ludwig, having ruled 23 years, abdicated. While his wife Therese died six years later, Ludwig lived 20 years after his abdication, spending lavishly on the arts and annoying his son, the new king, by doing so.
Regardless of your views on 19th century Bavarian politics, I hope you will come to the party. It is another chance for us to make new friends and catch up with old ones. We can all be German for at least a day. The Wrampelmeiers see nothing wrong with that. Have some tasty food and the beverage of your choice. Even if you are just visiting, you are invited.
While it may seem odd to celebrate a 213-year old Bavarian wedding, the Gospel of Matthew today tells of a much stranger wedding banquet. Jesus is speaking to the crowds but is pointedly addressing the chief priests and the Pharisees, who are present as well. The chief priests earlier had challenged Jesus, asking him by what authority he was doing what he was doing and who gave him that authority. Jesus tells three parables directed at them, today’s parable being the third.
Twenty-first century Christians want to know what really happened during Jesus’ life and search the bible for the historical events. On our refrigerator at home, we have a magnet with a picture of Jesus addressing a crowd, saying,
Okay everyone. Now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this!
The gospel writers, including Matthew, were not historians. “These books…were not meant to be historically objective biographies of Jesus, but proclamations of the good news of the salvation he brought.”1 Writing his gospel about 60 years after the death of Jesus, Matthew’s audience was a Jewish-Christian community of believers. Matthew, like the other gospel writers, was concerned with communicating to his church important truths with the stories of Jesus’ life and sayings.
In the first centuries after Jesus’ ministry, including during the time the gospels were written, the religion of the early believers was so diverse that one could speak of early Christianities rather than early Christianity.2 Each gospel writer had a different perspective, a different theology, which each gospel conveys. It is only much later that the four gospels in our bible were selected as orthodox from many competing gospels. The church then worked to synthesize the four gospels and other books of the bible into a unified theology.
In adapting today’s parable for his Gospel, Matthew has a message to convey to his community, a message of salvation history from the first Jewish prophets to the Christian prophets of Matthew’s day. This message takes priority over any realism in the story, as Matthew has some points to get across.
If we read the parable as an analogy, the king is God the Father, who invites guests to participate in salvation through his son, Jesus. The first group, the Jews, were originally called to the wedding banquet, to salvation. God sends the Hebrew prophets to remind them of the invitation, but acting as a group, they refuse their king’s invitation. That refusal is a rebellion against the king in the parable and against God in Matthew’s salvation history. Refraining from punishment, God sends more messengers, the Christian prophets, but these missionaries are ignored by some and killed by others. The king destroys the rebels, just as in salvation history, God will punish those who persecute his followers.
Note in the parable that the king has enough time once the banquet is ready for the two sets of servants to be sent, one set of servants to be murdered, the king to dispatch an army, and the army to kill the murderers and burn their cities. Our Oktoberfest will be shorter.
Coming back to the analogy, God sends more Christian missionaries, this time not to the Jews who rejected his call, but to Gentiles. Gentiles come to the banquet, accepting salvation through Jesus. Note God welcomes both the good and the bad. All are invited.
The end of the parable has the strange expulsion of the wedding guest not dressed for the wedding. Here is another quirk in the parable. If the guests were gathered from street corners, we would expect none of them to be dressed for a wedding, yet Matthew has this man singled out for not wearing wedding clothes. Matthew again is making a point. This point has significance for us.
The expelled wedding guest came to the party, but, by not wearing wedding clothes, the man was not participating in the banquet. The man came when invited but did nothing else to respond to the invitation.
If you come to Oktoberfest today and sit alone at the far corner of lawn, neither eating the food nor drinking a beverage and engaging with no one, are you at the celebration or have you removed yourself, even though your body remains present? Having been invited to God’s wedding banquet, what must we do to participate in the salvation God offers us?
The message from the Gospel of Matthew is that to experience in this life the salvation God offers, we must respond to God’s invitation by doing more than just stating, “Yes, I believe.” I can say I am a Christian, an Episcopalian, having accepted God’s invitation for salvation. But if I do nothing else—if I do not pray, join with a community of believers, and live our baptismal covenant in my daily life, including loving my God with all my heart and with all my mind and my neighbor as myself—I will not taste the joy of God’s salvation in this life. It is like the difference between sitting in that far off corner of the lawn watching everyone by yourself and instead celebrating smack in the middle of the festival, sharing the meal and conversation, fully engaged.
While parties are fun, a life of faith has other ways to respond to God’s invitation and to experience his salvation. For example, we need more Eucharistic visitors, people who take communion on Sundays to members of our congregation who cannot physically attend church. Some visits are to homes. Others are to care facilities, sometimes hospitals. The time Eucharistic visitors spend with each person makes a world of difference to the recipients. My mother joined my sister’s Episcopal church when my mom moved to North Carolina, but due to her health, she cannot physically attend services. The Eucharistic visitors who regularly come to see her have engaged my mom with church and delighted her. How much closer to experiencing salvation can you come than bringing Christ’s body and blood to someone who otherwise could not receive it? Like angels, Eucharistic visitors are God’s messengers.
Other ministries may call to you, ministries that can deepen your relationship to God and to your church family: Breakfast Teams, Flower Guild, Altar Guild, the Beloved Community group, Episcopal Youth Community or EYC, Adult Formation, Children’s Sunday School, the nursery—I know I am omitting many ministries. And those are just the ministries within the church. Our main work lies outside this campus, sharing God’s love with the people with whom we live, work, play, or otherwise encounter, whether family, friends, or strangers. As you think about stewardship being more than just money, as you think about stewardship as also giving of your time and talent, consider these gifts to be your donning your wedding clothes at God’s great banquet.
So come to the party. Respond to God’s invitation. To employ another analogy, this one from those philosophers, the R&B, soul, and funk band Kool & The Gang:
Uh, how you gonna do it if you really don’t wanna dance
By standing on the wall?
(Get your back up off the wall!)
And tell me
Uh, how you gonna do it if you really won’t take a chance
By standing on the wall?
(Get your back up off the wall!)
‘Cause I heard all the people sayin’
(Get down on it) Come on and
(Get down on it) If you really want it!
(Get down on it) You gotta feel it!
(Get down on it) Get down on it!
(Get down on it) Come on and
(Get down on it) Baby, baby
(Get down on it) Get on it!
(Get down on it)
1 Bart D. Ehrman, “From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity,” The Great Courses (2004).