On List Making and Wedding Feasts

Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas' Episcopal Church in Elk Grove Village
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost - Year A

Buy milk, call Mom, pick out a card and gift for the party this weekend, get the oil changed on the car, mow the lawn, do laundry. Does this sound familiar? Your “to-do” list may not be on paper . . . maybe you just make a mental list. But, list making is one of the ways in which we make order out of the chaos that is life. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul proclaims: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made to God.” I don’t know about you, but the last time I tried handing my to-do list over to God, not a whole lot happened - - - or did it?

On a Wednesday afternoon, one and a half weeks ago, I was packing up my stuff to head home from St. Nicks. It was time to go. As I stuffed my last book into my bag, I heard a knock on the church doors. So I set down my bag and went to the door. I greeted an elderly brother and sister – not members of St. Nick’s, but they had received our welcoming postcard in the mail and thought perhaps we’d be able to help them. They were having some financial difficulties and were having trouble making their mortgage payments. Steve and I spent some time talking with them and provided them with the phone numbers of community organizations that they might try contacting to obtain some assistance. This brother and sister were not on my to-do list – I know, because I still have that list - Liturgy Committee Agenda, Review Newcomer’s Kit, Work on Sermon. It said nothing about a knock at the door just when I was trying to go home for the day. There was nothing neat and tidy about a knock on the door when it was time to go home. In fact, the needs of this pair were rather messy - a professional, but menacing letter from a bank; a disconnected phone because bills had been unpaid; not enough money to put food on the table AND pay the mortgage; and a desire for someone to hear them and to care.

For most of us, on most days, our list of things to do is either too long for the hours in the day OR simply unmanageable because of interruptions that are beyond our control. On days like these, we might go to bed feeling frustrated and defeated and, if we have the energy to think about God, on days like this, it is often in the context of “Where were you today when I needed you God?”

Today’s gospel lesson tells a familiar parable – Jesus liked talking in parables. Several chapters before our reading from Matthew today, the gospel writer says of parables: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive” (Matthew 13.14b). And yet, this is the method Jesus used to teach and we must do what we can to understand. Over the centuries, many have tried to understand this parable of the wedding feast. The most common understanding goes something like this:

God is the king who invites each of us to the wedding banquet of his son Jesus. Many people choose to ignore the invitation either because they don’t take it seriously or they have too many things on their “to-do” list and can’t be bothered. Of those who do come to the wedding banquet, one man stands out because he is not wearing a wedding gown. Instead of a suit and tie, he has come in cut offs and a ripped t-shirt. This man knew what was expected, but, like those who chose to ignore the invitation altogether, this man doesn’t take the invitation seriously – he shows up maybe hoping the food will be good, maybe there will be a good band - but he is largely indifferent to the nature of the occasion. His indifference, in this reading of the parable, amounts to a rejection of the life that Christ sets before us. This man chooses to live in sin rather than to turn his heart and life over to God.

This is not a bad interpretation of the parable. Because being a Christian entails doing more than just showing up. Being a Christian comes with responsibilities. We acknowledge this each time we renew our baptismal vows promising to continue in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; promising to persevere in resisting evil; promising to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons; and promising to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Yes, being a Christian comes with responsibilities.

But this morning I’d like to suggest another possible interpretation of the parable. What if the king in the story is not God, but is just some ordinary king and the king’s son is not Jesus, but just some ordinary prince? What if Jesus is the man who is cast out – the man wearing the cut-offs and the ripped t-shirt? What if Jesus is the last person you would have expected to be at the party – after all, he has been known to hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes – not to mention all that time he wastes wandering around the Galilean country side swapping stories with his motley band of disciples! Surely this man was not on the invitation list – the wedding banquet “to-do” list. Clearly this man does not belong in the neat and tidy world of the king and his son.

Eugene Peterson has written a book called Under the Unpredictable Plant in which he writes, “The human race has put up with numerous attempts to avoid the mess of creativity in order to guarantee a predictable goodness” (p. 165). So we, making our “to-do” lists, effectively avoid the mess of creativity - of life itself – choosing instead to organize our days into manageable chunks thereby ensuring that we have a predictably productive day. We might even reference such a day by telling friends, “I really had a good day yesterday – I got everything done I’d planned to.” Peterson goes on to suggest that in order to be truly “involved in creativity” we must enter “the mess” (p. 163). The very things that we commonly see as interruptions or inconveniences in our day – the man in the cut-off shorts and ripped t-shirt at the wedding banquet; the elderly brother and sister knocking at the door of St. Nick’s; the phone call from your neighbor just as you were running out the door to pick up the kids – these unexpected people and events may, in fact, be God’s invitation to us to seek and serve all persons in Christ. As we go about our daily routines, let us hand over our “to-do” lists to God and see what creative surprises God might have in store for us each day.