Not a good time for a party

Oh, friends.  We are so ridiculous when it comes to parables.  We like to know what things mean and we like for them to mean one thing, and we are flummoxed when they elude us.  
This parable is awesome.  It throws a scatter bomb into the preacher’s text study table, it twists the commentators and the scholars in knots, and leaves everyone flailing and grasping and often simply preaching the Old Testament text instead.  

What to make of the violent wedding feast before us: Was this parable originally about the religious leaders? A division within the early followers of Jesus? Was it about Herod – the king in the story is really bad and that’s him?  Is it about living like you mean it, about being God’s strictness in calling or choosing people followers, about our own rejecting or accepting eternal salvation? Is it a very subtle joke? 
There have been and will continue to be all sorts of interpretations in all sorts of times and places.  Because God is alive and active in our lives and world, and because scripture is a tool God uses to speak to us, then the Holy Spirit can speak through this parable a message God wants us to hear.  That’s the delight and frustration of parables, after all.

So without getting bogged down trying to crack the code and figure out the one right message, let’s accept that it’s an exaggerated story meant to provoke and evoke, and that God can use it to speak what we need to hear. And let’s approach it with curiosity, from our own place and time and struggle, right here and now, and see what might has to say to us.

So, first, where are we? What is our place and struggle?
We sit here tonight among human beings with a higher standard of living than any other time in history.  We live comfortably.  Even when we struggle, it’s a different kind of thing than generations and centuries gone before. 
And we have another unique distinction.  For the first time in history, it is possible to live almost entirely without God.  By that I mean, we don’t have any sense of needing God, any obligation to acknowledge God, or any built in mechanisms for experiencing God.  We’re a demystified people, without the thinness between the spiritual realm and the physical realm that has existed for all of human history leading up to the modern age.  You and I live in a scientific, material world, where things can be explained and tested, and where the authority of all is our own selves, our own experience, and the systems we’ve set up to keep things running smoothly.  There is no need for something bigger than us, we have gotten pretty darn big.

Life in this new world without God, without transcendence, what Charles Taylor calls, “The imminent frame”, consists primarily of meeting our own needs and wants, figuring out who we are, and pursuing our goals.  Personal advancement, upward mobility, and the ever constant fight against death, which, if its measured by delaying death we are winning, but if its measured by avoiding death, we’re just as ineffectual as ever.  Finding meaning today means pouring ourselves into our work, our families, perfecting our bodies or our portfolios or our home d├ęcor, and while there may be a hunger deep underneath for more, we don’t generally know how to talk about it or what to do with it.  Instead, when religion comes up it does so as fundamentalism or ideology, arguing about beliefs and world views, battling and warring over differences – either literally, or with words and judgment and separation and loathing.

We read and listen to the things that reinforce our own beliefs and cut off or ignore or openly disparage the things that don’t. We organize ourselves in communities that support our ideas and goals and divide ourselves from those that don’t.  There are simply too many choices and too few tools to help us make good ones, so we contract and get smaller and build higher walls.  We distract ourselves from any form of discomfort and feed ourselves with more – more food, more amusements, more work, more diversions – from sun up until way after sundown, we live on a gluttonous starvation diet of busy, and it keeps us from having to feel the longing or face the void.

Into this reality speaks this parable.

The king is throwing a party.  A stop what you’re doing, drop everything and come to the party kind of party.  The king’s son is getting married. It’s a big deal. This party is more food than you’ve ever seen at one time, the best meal you’ve ever eaten, and someone else is preparing it for you and serving you.  Dancing and music and conversation and merriment, and all you have to do is show up.  Only, you can’t because you’re an ordinary Joe and this party is happening at the king’s house, so, naturally, only the rich and the famous are invited to attend. (There are  standards, after all).
But something happens – they don’t go.  They have other, more pressing things, apparently, than celebrating at a lavish party with the king.  Some say they have to work on their farm, or on their business- they’d rather be working than celebrating, rather be trying to earn their way up the ladder than skip up to the top and dine with the king.  They’ve received the invitation – but tossed it right away; it just wasn’t going to be possible to attend.  I’ve too much to do, they say. My business needs me. My farm needs me.  I wish I could, but… and they turn away, unable, unwilling, to simply stop and enjoy the feast.  Many have quite simply forgotten the king, their world has constricted to their own domain, losing their connection to everything and everyone that lay beyond.  
The invitation to party with the king is just irrelevant fantasy.

Because life is production and consumption, a relentless uphill battle, stopping to feast makes no sense; no matter who it is that has invited them. Who’s got time for that? How far behind would I get if I did that? 
In fact, some get so angry at the invitation to drop it all and come party, that they torture and kill the messengers – it enrages them to be treated as though they could just leave things and come to a party.  How dare these messengers insinuate their work is so worthless they could just drop it? How dare they stand there parading an alternative as though it was a real option – so enticing and taunting?  Flaunting this freedom, this silliness, in the face of their essential work?  
It’s the family who refuses to sign their kids up for everything, saying that time at home is more important, the person who turns off their email and phone on the weekends, the one who takes their full vacation time, or leaves the board meeting for their kid’s volleyball game – how nice for them! 
I could never do that –
 my life is too busy,
my work is too pressing,
the pressure is too great.
 The kids would get behind. 
My boss would think I’m not committed.
I would lose the chance for advancement. 
What would people say? 
There is little in life as infuriating as someone living health right in front of your unhealth, someone balancing in the face of your imbalance.  Who do they think they are? They are breaking the rules, the messages that say we are supposed to be too busy, too committed, running too fast to keep up, eating not quite like we should, not sleeping enough, wishing we could have more but knowing it’s impossible.  And here they stand, acting like it’s possible.
How dare they!?

There’s a little folk tale that goes something like this:
There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Brazilian village.
As he sat, he saw a Brazilian fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few big fish.
The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.”
“Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished.
“This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said.
The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?”
The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink — we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”
The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman.
“I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. By then, you will have moved out of this village and to Sao Paulo, where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches.”
The fisherman continues, “And after that?”
The businessman laughs heartily, “After that, you can live like a king in your own house, and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange, and you will be rich.”
The fisherman asks, “And after that?”
The businessman says, “After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village, wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids, have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink, play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!”
The fisherman was puzzled, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?”

And the business man kills the fisherman. 
No, that’s not really there. But it might be. Because the fisherman just took away everything the businessman had ever been about, in one fell swoop.

So after they kill the messengers, the king retaliates and wipes out all the murders and burns down their businesses and the whole thing they had going is gone in an instant-  it doesn’t last, nothing lasts, after all, but we pour ourselves into it all as though it does.  The grass withers and the flower fades and all day long we toil under the sun…and insert all those other biblical images for how temporary things are here. 
Now with the farms gone and the businesses gone and the wealthy business owners gone with all barriers torn down, and false power and ranking and rat race and security gone, and everything exposed for what it was – fleeting –the invitation goes out again. 

And this time, the king invites everyone –far and wide, this party needs people and this feast is for all.  And there is no more way to earn your way up, the city is in ashes, so everyone, everywhere, come to the party and find abundant food and rich company and sit in the presence of the king.  
And there is nowhere else to aspire to than that – there never has been, really.  Some of them never thought they’d set foot on the royal grounds let alone inside the banquet hall, others may have been working up to being established, or wealthy, or respected, enough to one day be worthy of an invitation, but today all that is over. They are all already invited.

There is no more distinction between rich and poor, connected and marginalized, wealthy and impoverished – the city is in ashes and they are all invited to the party.  Those who have already self-selected out are missing it. But everybody else – good and bad, is welcome in the palace ballroom.
So the people drop their work and come, from far and wide, they set down their labor and put aside their theories about who should and shouldn’t be allowed at such a thing and which category they belong to, and they show up.  Scrubbed and dressed up with flowers in their hair and fiddles in their hands, they stream into the celebration to dine with the king.  Bring your swimsuit and a jacket for the bonfire! This is going to go on for a while!  And the party commences. 

Except among them is someone who is not dressed for the occasion. Among them is one who came in his uniform, in his scrubs, in his three-piece suit, in his work clothes – standing in the banquet hall with one foot out the door,
I can only stay a minute,
 I’m not really here, don’t mind me!
I just need to slip out in a few,
 I just need to take a quick call,
let me just shoot off this last email, I wont be but a second…,
I came to the party, but not really, because I really should get back to
the office, the shop, the farm, the factory, the rat race.
Too risky to go home and change into my swimsuit-  what if the pager goes off and I have to run?
 I’m juggling so much. You understand.

And the guest is dismissed, forcibly removed, really, with all the drama and cartoonish gore of the rest of the tale.  He’s not dropped off by shuttle at his office lobby doors to resume his duties; he is bound hand and foot and tossed into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.  
He’s given over to his worst fears, suddenly realized - the thing he works so hard to avoid.  The lurking void that drives him on and on, harder and harder, catches up to him; the nothingness he’s spent his life fleeing and guarding against, now swallows him whole.  No work or distractions to save him here, only endless emptiness, staring at him from without and within.

Every parable is meant expose something about the way of fear and reveal something about the way of God, it is meant to uncover the absurdity of a way of life bent on self-preservation and accumulation, competition and scarcity and, ultimately, destruction, and to point to a way of life of connection and trust, participation and abundance, and, always, welcome.  But oh, how hard it is to look at what it reveals and accept what it might be asking of us.

Remember, friends, we are wired for life. We are made to be in connection with God and each other and to live fully, abundantly, participating.  We are set free, and yet we continue to go after slavery, we are brought into wholeness and we continue to break and divide, we are children of the light and yet we continue to hide in or hide from the darkness, we try to earn what God wants to share with us, and all the time we keep missing the big picture.  
God is alive and active. Transcendence is lurking.  Redemption is afoot.  There is a deeper meaning. And it isn’t found by fleeing death, but by facing it. It’s not in outrunning fear but by embracing it, not by relentlessly moving, but by standing still from time to time and meeting God, meeting  ourselves, meeting each other, right here.

I wonder, friends, how often we forget the king.

I wonder what our excuses are for turning down the invitation to the party.  Or whether we show up in our work clothes with one foot out the door, because we are simply too important and essential to the work we are doing to preserve our own lives to stop it, even for a moment, and join in what the big picture is bringing.  I wonder what it would be like to set it all down and come to the banquet table.

As we've been doing with all the parables - hear now the invitation to a time of reflection and prayer:
The kingdom of God is breaking in in all sorts of ways – not just one way, in all sorts of lives - not just some lives, and God’s truth can grip us where we are and tell us what we need to hear. 
So we hold up the parable today before God, and ask,
What parts of my life rise up to meet it? 
Where is there discomfort? Where is there peace?
How might God bring this story alongside me and illumine what God wants me to notice?

Each week in Lent, we write our prayers on a light table in ashes.  These are this week's prayers.

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