It’s good to be preaching again after a few weeks break – some annual leave, some weeks in which we had visiting preachers at St Mike’s. Today’s gospel story is the party that nobody wanted to come to (Matthew 22.1-14).
At the very beginning of the story, in Lord of the Rings, old Bilbo throws a party. It isn’t a wedding party, it’s a birthday party because Bilbo is turning 111 – or eleventy-one, as the hobbits say, and that is an age well worth celebrating. Unbeknown to the guests, it’s also going to be a going away party, but they don’t know that yet, and that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Because of a misspent youth robbing dragon’s dens, Bilbo is fabulously wealthy, and he has another unfair advantage because his chief party organiser is the wizard Gandalf, who in the weeks leading up to the party keeps arriving with covered wagons full of mysterious objects which everybody hopes are firecrackers. For weeks and weeks disreputable looking strangers have been arriving at the front gate of no. 1, Bagshot Row, Bag End, and it has become a favourite guessing game for Bilbo’s neighbours to speculate on what, exactly, they are up to. Unfortunately, there’s no way anybody can find out, because posted on Bilbo’s front gate is an enormous notice that says, “Strictly no admittance, except on Party Business”.
I tell this story, not because anybody stayed away from Bilbo’s party – in fact, everybody turned up, even those who didn’t receive invitations, having charitably assumed that they must have gone missing in the post. Even Bilbo’s harshest critics, the Sackville-Bagginses, were there eating and drinking just as much as they could, and surreptitiously eyeing off the silverware. No, Bilbo’s big party is the logical place to start from today simply because it was a proper party, an event that had piqued everybody’s curiosity for weeks before and miles around, where feuds were forgotten or at the very least laughed loudly at, where everybody knew that beer was for drinking, birthday presents were supposed to go in the guests’ pockets and food was for getting just as much as possible of stuffed down your throat before anybody else could lay their hands on it.
Which leads me to make two points. One – that that’s exactly what a party would be like, in the towns and villages of Galilee in the first century, where Jesus first tells this story. In this subsistence economy, only the relatively well-off could do such an extravagant thing as to throw a party with unthinkable quantities of free food and drink. You’d prepare for weeks, everybody for miles around would have a sticky-beak at how the preparations were coming along, and then when everything was ready – you’d send out the word and everybody drops everything to come. And the second point? – Jesus, just like all the very best prophets before him, says that God’s kingdom is just like that. The kingdom of God is a slap-up party, not your polite, stilted conversation and hors d’oeuvre kind but the rollicking, drink yourself under the table kind, a real party. A proper, tables groaning under the weight of it all, feast. God’s generosity is extravagant, over the top, even wasteful. That’s the point. And the Eucharist we share every week is supposed to be a taste of that, a party that tells us there’s something physical and organic about our experience of God, inhibitions and hang-ups get left at the door, we come along, warts and all, and experience our own humanity as part of Christ’s humanity, like us or lump us, together we’re the body of Christ. I hope you get that.
But the party in Jesus’ story, the guests don’t turn up. Now Matthew, who is writing 50 or so years after Jesus death and resurrection, Matthew is writing for his own audience and so he embroiders a bit. Matthew’s version of this story is just a bit different from Luke’s, for example. Only Matthew tells us it’s a king throwing a party for his son, and that I guess tips us off that it’s a code. Matthew means us to think of the king as God, and Jesus as the Son. For Matthew’s community the next bit would have been just as obvious. The guests who were invited first, who even got violent when they were invited for the second time, well, they must be God’s original in-crowd, the Jewish people, and the riff-raff who get invited to take their places – that’s us! That’s Gentiles, non-Jewish folk – in Luke’s slightly different telling of the story you might be more inclined to think the extras press-ganged to make up the numbers are the poor, the marginalised, folk who ordinarily get overlooked in the general scheme of things - but actually the main point is exactly the same. God stands for inclusiveness. You don’t have to be good-looking. You don’t have to be clever, you don’t have to be rich. Doesn’t matter what gender you are, doesn’t matter about your sexual preference. You don’t even have to be reputable, that’s right, prostitutes, murderers and pickpockets are welcome at this table. You don’t have to believe the right things, despite what some of the nastier intra-Church arguments might suggest, God doesn’t wait for you to subscribe to the right theological doctrine or belong to the right Church party – come on down, anyway. The point, I think, is that Church is – and it’s about time it started to see itself as – a place for nobodies, losers and failures to hang out and experience the reality that here, you’re somebody. Here you’re a winner, you’re a success – why? Not because of anything you’ve done but because God wants you, God loves you to bits, in fact God needs you to make up the hodgepodge of humanity that constitutes the body of Christ.
If you’re not feeling comfortable with that job description, if in your heart of hearts you actually think you’re doing alright on your own terms, you haven’t got any insidious little voice reminding you right now about the stuff that’s gone wrong in your life that you actually don’t know how to put right – then here’s the news – if you’re human, it’ll happen. And the fact that we’re all invited to God’s party means that – right in the middle of the compromise and heartache of life – there is a deep experience of joy just waiting for us to experience it. But it’s not a solitary exercise. You can’t party by yourself, only with all the other reprobates that God insists on letting in.
And so here’s the problem. Not everybody wants to play. And you can just hear Jesus’ exasperation, here. He’s experiencing some rejection of his ministry. In Matthew’s community, half a century later, ditto. Not everybody thinks this is good news, in fact there’s a determined rearguard action being fought by many who think this undisciplined lot who don’t even expect converts to obey the Jewish food laws, to be circumcised and follow the do’s and don’t’s of the Torah – this willy-nilly message of totally unearned forgiveness and inclusiveness is way over the top and we’re sure as heck not going to party with them – and Matthew’s community is copping some opposition. So it’s easy to see why this story of Jesus is one Matthew’s community can relate to. We’re the riff-raff who got the point. We’ve come to the party.
Two thousand years later, we can hang on to that same interpretation. Them out there, they don’t want to play. We’re the ones who did accept the invitation and so here we are.
Except, are we really playing? If God’s scheme of things is a slap-up party, then how might God be inviting us to party today, and are we really listening? What’s the 21st century equivalent of not being a stick-in-the-mud, of putting aside our preconceptions about what’s right and proper and accepting God’s invitation to let our hair down?
Because here comes the second half of the story, and guess what? It sounds wrong. It doesn’t seem to fit the first half. Because the king, wandering through the crowd of revellers who you would have thought must be the worst dressed - not to mention the smelliest and most unsavoury bunch of beggars and ne’er do wells who ever slept in a doorway - and he spots one poor sod not wearing a party outfit. And the king throws him out. So what’s all that about?
Certainly, the story as it stands is a bit clunky. You don’t invite beggars and then expect them to be well-dressed. Most Bible commentators, and I think they’re right, believe that Matthew has decided to cobble together two stories that don’t quite fit. So we just need to let that little inconsistency stand. Maybe the king’s servants have been handing out paper hats and party robes at the door and this chap refuses to put one on, he’s wandering around with a long face and a bad attitude bringing the whole party mood down with him. I don’t really know.
But here’s the point. It’s not enough to come to the party, it matters what we do when we get here. You accept the invitation, you need to join in the festivities. You can’t be a sad-sack like I sometimes am at parties and say, ‘oh, I don’t know how to dance I’ll just sit here and watch’.
You have to join in. But with what? What’s God calling us to, today? First and foremost, I think, to loosen up. To actually listen together, to talk together about how we do this Church stuff in the context of a new century. To work on actually being the inclusive community, the community that values the contributions of all its members. To work on actually looking like we’re having a good time. To work on how we go about telling the world around us that God’s love is worth celebrating. The Diocesan Mission Plan is a good place for us to start. Already it’s the result of some inspired listening, all it doesn’t have yet is our input, our ‘yes, we can do that bit!’. It’s not just a job that Church Office or even Jesus says we’ve got to do, it’s about who we are, it’s what being God’s people is all about.
Maybe that sounds a bit scary. Maybe even just calling it a Mission Plan makes it sound like it should be somebody else’s job, somebody qualified, for example. Maybe, I think, we should call it a Party Plan instead. You know what? We made a good start last week. We partied with a bit of pizzazz. Folks, here’s the secret. God’s party is meant to be fun. We’re meant to be enjoying ourselves. As the Reverend Elizabeth Smith told us at Synod yesterday, the gospel is way more fun than football. We’re meant to be piquing the curiosity of neighbours for miles around, wondering what we’re up to. That’s the whole point. Because – so today’s story is actually telling us – on the door of the church there’s a great big sign, and it says, ‘Strictly no admittance except on Party Business’.