As Frieda stared at her husband’s casket suspended above the open grave, she felt like she was falling into the outer darkness. She still had not cried, but she’d never felt so alone, so frightened, so sad. She was sure the funeral had been nice, but she did not hear a word that was said. Her mind was clouded over with grief. Now that he is gone, it hurts. When the graveside service was done, it was time to go back to her empty house, probably sitting alone, for they had no children. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Mildred from her Bible Study group. All at once, the tears flowed like rain. As they hugged, Mildred said, “I’m praying for you, Frieda, and I’ll be here for you. Would you like to ride with us, and we will take you home?”
Brian did not know why, but it seemed darkness descended on him the last few days. He had a good job, his health was good, and they have two beautiful daughters. But something was missing. Their marriage has been a little shaky. He remembered how he used to go to church with his family. He did not remember why they stopped. The soccer games of his kids fall on Sundays sometimes. He thought about going back, but he had not been there for a while. Well, maybe sometime he’d get up the nerve and go. His phone rang, and he answered on the second ring. “Brian? It’s Kurt. Lori and I were wondering if you and Susan would like to go out with us for Sunday brunch this week. We will pick you up for church, and we will go from there after service?”
The parable of the Wedding Banquet is one of the three parables of Jesus in Chapter 21 and 22 in the Book of Matthew. He undoubtedly told this parable in many different settings. This parable may be relevant to the two stories I had just related. One of the distinct advantages of the parable is that its major truth may be applied in various contexts. Interpretations of the parable will vary accordingly.
Jesus tells his listeners of a king who sent out invitations for a wedding banquet for his son. The first personal invitations were rejected or ignored. A second invitation was sent out to anyone. The second group responded positively, and was there.
The invitation was not just geographically expanded. It was extended indiscriminately to “both good and bad”. Anyone who hears of the king’s invitation is welcome to attend, regardless of their social, economic, or moral standing in the community. The servants who went out to those who had been invited represent God’s messengers. Those who responded, and were there, demonstrated by works of righteousness the reality of their involvement in God’s realm.
People of God, the outer darkness of our world can be so heavy, so oppressive. All it takes to lift that darkness is to respond to the invitation. As God’s servants, we are asked to invite people out of their darkness, and into the light, into a celebration of good things: salvation, Christian caring, hope, forgiveness; and new meaning in life.
It is our responsibility to invite others to Christ if we feel that Christ has made a difference in our lives. Some will reject our invitation. Some will be too busy with seemingly “important” things. Some may ignore us, too blinded by the darkness to see the gift we offer. Some will even try to drag us toward their darkness. There will even be some who would accept the invitation, and then come to the banquet of God’s grace not in garments of light and joy, but in the rags of criticism, blame, and darkness.
But God will deal with them in God’s way. I try not to play God. For one thing, I have to remember that my record of commitment is not exactly stellar. But however they will respond, every baptized believer is called to share the unconditional good news of God’s love and forgiveness through words and deeds with the help of the Holy Spirit. When we extend invitations to involvement and ministry, we trust that God will use our efforts to such invitations as a means of grace.
I pray that the United Church Men’s prison ministry will lift people out of the darkness where they are mired; the program of the Young Adults Fellowship helping the victims of the typhoon Odette will show them that people like you and me can help share with them the hope in Christ. Your invitation to your friends and acquaintances who are struggling with their lives and their relationships can bring them out from their struggles to a life abundant.
I believe that for every “no,” there will be a “yes”. For every “I’m too busy,” there will be a grateful smile. For every criticism, there will be a life filled with new joy. Because God has prepared the banquet, the party is full of celebration, forgiveness, and God’s love.
I assume that some of you, and those outside of the church who are waiting for the invitation, may have never realized that you need to respond to the invitation. Some of you may have made light of it because you do not believe there is any hope for you. Some may have rejected the invitation because your life seems too awful. Perhaps you do not believe that God’s grace can be so free, so accepting, so forgiving. If you are among this group, I assume that you need help in knowing how to accept the invitation.
The invitation to the marriage feast is God’s invitation to follow Jesus. The world says domination, accumulation, and consumption are the way, get all you can get. God says, “I invite you to a life of a community that cares for each other.” The world says conquer, control, compete. God says, “I invite you to love.” The world says “an eye for an eye”, get revenge, resist evil with evil. God says, “I invite you to a life of forgiveness.” The world says conform, be part of the majority, go with the flow. God says, “I invite you to follow me.”
The invitation is an invitation to a life of love and laughter. It means grace and forgiveness. It means partnership and harmony. God wants you to know and experience unconditional acceptance. God wants to put loving arms around you. God wants to forgive you. God wants to free you from bondage and guilt.
If there is bitterness in your heart, God wants to take that bitterness away. If there is no joy in your life, God wants to bring laughter. If there is regret or shame, God wants to wash it away. God will remember your sin no more. If you are captive to another allegiance, bound by another strong attraction that is destroying you, God wants to release you, set you free, and give you a fresh start. It is God’s will that you experience wholeness and a life of grace.
And if you say “Yes” to this invitation, the Holy Spirit will work in your heart, in your conscience, in your inner self. There will be a hunger, a desire to be different, a longing for change. Your conscience will tell you that something is missing. Tell God, “I want to accept your invitation. Just as I am, I come.”
Come in honesty. Come with your brokenness. Come with faith that God can change your life. Then let God love you the way you are. Do not try to be good enough. Do not wait until you are good enough. Receive God’s love. Enjoy God’s grace.
It is God’s love that will transform you, not your promise to be good. It is God’s love that will empower you to follow, not your downpayment for a good life. It is God’s love that will give you that sense of being forgiven, not your good deeds.
And as you come to God, take hold of someone’s hand. To accept the invitation to the marriage feast is to come into a fellowship with others. We will discover others who are broken, and others who are in the process of finding wholeness. The invitation is an invitation to live in community. We share with each other the blessings we receive, and the grace we experience.
I would like to share with you a story as told by a wonderfully creative Christian sociologist, Tony Campolo, who traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, for a speaking engagement. Since it was a long trip, he had an awful case of jetlag that by 3 a.m., he was wide awake. Tony found a doughnut shop near his hotel. As he sat there sipping coffee and glancing at a newspaper, the door to the diner swung open, and in marched about nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes. Their talk was loud and crude. Tony was just about to leave when he overheard one of the women say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” One of her friends responded in a sarcastic tone, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party?” “No,” she said. “I’ve never had a birthday party in my life. Too late to start now.”
Suddenly, Tony Campolo had an idea. As soon as the women had left, he said to Harry, the owner of the diner, “Do those women come in here every night?” “Yep,” he said, “about this same time. Hope they weren’t bothering you.” “No,” Tony said, “but I have an idea. The one sitting next to me is going to have a birthday tomorrow. I’ll pay the bill if we can have a little birthday party for her.”
A smile spread across Harry’s face. “That’s a good idea. Her name is Agnes.” So Harry called his wife, and they agreed to bake a cake for Agnes. The next morning by 3 a.m., Campolo had decorated the diner with a big sign reading, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Word had gotten around somehow because by 3 a.m., every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. Wall-to-wall prostitutes and Tony Campolo. By 3:30 a.m. on the dot, Agnes walked in the diner, and confronted the cake with burning candles, and the crowd singing loudly, “Happy Birthday.” She was flabbergasted, stunned, shaken. Her eyes moistened. After she blew out the candles, she completely lost it, and openly cried.
After the party was over, Tony asked the group if he could say a prayer. He prayed for Agnes and everyone else in the group. Then after everyone was gone, he thanked Harry for going along with the party. Harry said, “Hey, you did not tell me you were a preacher. What church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3 a.m.”
That is the kind of church that Jesus came to create. Prostitutes, broken people, sinners, people who are hurting, and people who are looking for something. Say “yes” to God’s invitation to grace for you and for me.
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