Everybody loves a wedding. And one of my biggest regrets about my recent convalescence is that I missed the wedding of the year, here at St Mark's! I really enjoyed seeing the photos that Yvonne showed me last week...especially the Bridesmaid's dresses. I didn't know there was such a colour as Cadbury's Purple...but I want a waistcoat made of it now!
Weddings are a big theme in the Bible. According to John's gospel, it was at a wedding in Cana that Jesus first demonstrated his power, publicly, by turning water into wine. Weddings are often used as metaphors for the relationship between God and his people. In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus is described as a bridegroom who longs to be married to his bride, the Church. Jesus used the same wedding metaphor on a few occasions, including the famous story of the 10 virgins who await the coming of the bridegroom, with various degrees of readiness.
But in today's parable, there is real sting in the tail. Jesus tells a striking and somewhat troubling story in which all the invited guests to a wedding banquet refuse to come, at the last minute. So the King (who is the host) rounds up a rag-tag gang of street people, who suddenly find themselves at a party they had never dreamed of attending. Then, when King enters the wedding hall, he finds a man who has not put on a wedding robe, who finds himself thrown into the outer darkness 'where there is weeping and knashing of teeth'.
Many of Jesus' parables are aimed at the rich and the powerful...but this one is aimed full-square at us. There are dire warnings at play here...warnings which we need to hear. Before they end up refusing his invitation, the original guests receive invites from two sets of the King's servants. Jesus' hearers would have understood that he was referring to the prophets, and then the Christian missionaries that God had sent out with the good news of the invitation.
In Jesus metaphor, some invited guests go to work on their farm, others to their business. Each of us should let Jesus' metaphors speak to our own imaginations. But for me, these are the people who put their need to accumulate wealth over and above their duty to the community that they are called to belong to. Instead of taking part in the wedding feast, they are too busy making money and feathering their nest.
Most of you will know by now that I bought myself a second-hand caravan during my convalescence. My plan is that from time to time I'm going to slip away from the parish and spend a few days in peace and quietness, and get some serious walking done! A couple of weeks ago, Clare and I sited our caravan in the Chichester harbour area. I have to tell you...it's been a long time since I've been in a place that has so much wealth on display. Much of my ministry of the last few years has been either in North End or Ghana, where I mainly see people who are just managing to get from day to day, with very little wealth or luxury. But in the Chichester Harbour area, we could not believe the wealth that we saw - only half an hour from North End. House after house that we passed had high walls, manicured lawns and enormous numbers of rooms. The harbour itself is packed with yachts and expensive motor-boats...almost too many for other boats to be able to make their way up and down the water-ways! It's a beautiful area - and I don't blame anyone for wanting to live in such a place. But I have to wonder at the priorities of the people who live in these vast mansions, and who own such luxury.
Who are these people? Well, of course some of them will be those who have inherited the houses they live in from previous generations, and who no doubt struggle to keep them going. But others - and I suspect this means the majority - will be those who have managed to accumulate sufficient wealth in their life-time to be able to afford such luxury. But here's what troubles me... one only accumulates that kind of wealth by deliberately and persistently keeping as much earned income as possible to oneself. Such wealth is made by lawyers, bankers, investment managers, and high flying business-people. Sometimes it’s made by media-stars or football players. Sometimes it is simply inherited. Most of it, for most rich people, is made by luck - the luck of being born into wealth, or having been in the right place at the right time when a lot of money was being made, or when the right jobs in the right businesses were being handed out.
What distinguishes these people from the rest of humanity is what they choose to do with their wealth. There are some people who make millions, only to give it all away - or at least enough of it to make a huge difference, while still affording a reasonable and comfortable living for themselves. And there are others who hold onto it, knowing full well the voices of the prophets. They know that billions are starving. They know that, according to recent figures, more than 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. And yet, they do nothing. Oh, perhaps they write the odd little cheque to charity...especially if it can be written off against their tax bill...
But these are the people who are able to justify to themselves the ownership of multiple houses, enormous yachts and other expensive toys, while eighty per cent of the world lives in squalor. These are the people who have been invited to the great sharing of the wedding banquet...but who choose to go back to their farm, or to tend to their business. They are not evil people as such...most of them are lovely folks who one could spend a very pleasant time with over a gin and tonic on the deck of their yacht. They are the 'Great Mis-guided'...the ones who have missed the point of life. They are the ones who mistakenly, but genuinely believe that the only real purpose in life is to be the one who dies owning the most toys. As I drove around Chichester Harbour, I found that I felt profound pity for these people.
There's another group of invitees who are even worse, though. There are those who, according to Jesus' parable, who seized the King's servants, and then 'mistreated and killed them'. These are the people who deliberately seek to destroy the work of the King. These are the ones, like the mad mullahs of ISIS, who are systematically killing Christians at the moment in Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan. These are the arms manufacturers who deliberately foment war, all around the world, in order to make as much profit as possible out of death. These are the makers and distributors of illegal drugs on the streets of our cities, who trade deliberately on the addiction and misery of others. They are the owners of banking institutions, like Wonga, who charge stratospheric interest rates to the poorest and most desperate people in our community. There is, frankly, no hope for such people - unless they repent of their ways and turn to the King. Their fate, in Jesus words, is to be ultimately destroyed. They will not survive the coming of the Kingdom. They are doomed.
So if these are the people who have ignored the wedding invitation (or who even have killed the Kings servants) who are the guests who actually end up at the wedding? It is the rest of humanity - both bad and good, according to Jesus, who find themselves there. God's love for humanity is total. He invites all - the bad and the good - to the wedding feast. He wants all his children to be present - and to each one who will accept it, he offers a new set of clothes...what Jesus calls a 'wedding robe'.
Even today, we still understand the value of new clothes for significant moments in life, don't we, For Yvonne and Neil, it was Cadbury-Purple bridesmaids' dresses, and a beautiful new dress for Yvonne. For Neil it was a very smart penguin suit! At baptisms, more often than not, parents will often buy brand new christening gowns for the children. This harks back to the days of the early church, when those being baptised would cast aside their old clothes at the moment of baptism, and would then be clothed in a brand new white robe as they emerged from the water. It was a visible sign of the new life that the convert had taken on...the new community to which they now belonged.
But when the King arrives, according to Jesus, there is one guest who is not wearing the new robe. "Friend," says the King, "how did you get in here without a wedding robe?". And when the man cannot give an explanation, the King's punishment is harsh. "Bind him, hand and foot", says the King, "and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth".
Finally, then, this is where we need to be the most cautious. For this section of the story is aimed as a loving but sincere warning, straight at us. This man, without a robe, represents those people who think that the only thing they need to do to be considered guest at the wedding, is to turn up. This is the kind of person who regularly comes to church. They sing the hymns, and take part in the rotas. They might even sit on a church committee. They might even wear a clerical collar and be called ''Reverend'! But all this is just for show. Deep down, within their hearts, they have not put on the wedding garment. Deep down, nothing has changed.
This is the person who recites the Lord's Prayer, but who says in their heart 'I will make sure I get myself my daily bread'. This is the person who says 'we forgive others their trespasses' but who still nurtures hatred and resentment towards another person. This is the person who publicly offers to be a living sacrifice, at the end of every Communion service, but who makes no effort during the rest of the week to pour out their life in sacrifice to others.
This parable then speaks to the whole of humanity. It is a warning to the 'Great Mis-Guided', who would rather tend to their business than come to the feast. It is a warning to most evil people of humanity, who deliberately kill or subjugate others for their own profit. But it is also a warning to us, that we need to be on our guard against having all the outwards appearance of faith, but none of the substance of it within our hearts.
My prayer is that we might all find the strength, the courage, and the grace to accept the invitation of the King. I pray that each one of us will accept the wedding garment that we are offered...the new life, and new way of living that is ours for the taking. It's the way of sacrifice, and the way of love. It's the way of giving life to others, and receiving life from them in return. It's the way of living in community and not just turning up to it occasionally. It's the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus. It's the Way to the only real Truth, and the only real Life.