Sunday, October 09, 2005

Our Party Best

Are you familiar with the phrase “A list”? The A list is the cream of the crop. They are the people we all want to associate with, whether they are TV and movie stars, politicians, business leaders, or celebrities of some other kind. Most of us have a personal A list, a list of people whom we like to associate with, and if we’re honest, we also have what (for want of a better phrase) I’ll call the X list, that is, the list of people we’d rather not associate with under any circumstances.

Jesus told a story about a king who threw a party to celebrate the wedding of his son. He invited all the people on his A list. The day and time of the wedding feast came, but no one showed up. So he sent his servants to remind them, thinking that perhaps they had overslept or had written it down on the wrong page of their day planners or palm pilots. But each of the A list invitees refused to come. The king was astonished, and sent his servant back to find out the reason for this outrageous behavior. The people on the A list had lame excuses. One was on her way to the lake for the weekend. Another was about to close a big deal that would double his business. Some of them just slammed the door in the face of the king’s servants or gave them a kick in the seat of their pants. Now this king was not the kind of pleasant, inoffensive monarch we find in the 21st century. He was a Middle Eastern potentate. He kept a fulltime staff of thugs who liked nothing more than beating the living daylights out of those who got on the wrong side of this king. So he sent them out to all the people on the A list, and those folks didn’t know what hit them. The words “Old Testament justice” barely begin to describe their fates. But the king still had a problem on his hand: his son was getting married and their was no one to come to the party. Furthermore, the caterers had a truck-full of shrimp mousse and a huge ice sculpture that were starting to get warm. So just to get some warm bodies in the chairs, he sent his servant out to collect the street people, and out they went again. So the wedding took place and the caterers served the shrimp mousse and everyone admired the elaborate ice sculpture of Cupid. The guests looked kind of uncomfortable in their ill-fitting rented tuxedoes and ball gowns that had been found for them at the last minute. Then the king spotted one guy who had sneaked in in his old army jacket with a knitted cap pulled down over his ears. “You! Yeah, I’m talking to you! How’d you get in here without a tux? Throw the bum out!” And his thugs grabbed the guy and tossed him out the door, giving him a few bruises just for good measure.

It’s a strange story, one of the strangest Jesus ever told. But I think it’s good news for all of us. From beginning to end, Jesus made it clear that he had come to bring good news to those who did not expect it and did not deserve it, and he was not well-received and seems not to have liked those who DID expect it and thought they deserved it. He made a point of seeking out and was sought out by those who were not on anyone’s A list: the poor, the sick, the leprous, crooks, and women of dubious morals.

But most of us are none of those things. We generally play by the rules, go to church on Sunday, pay our taxes, and are probably on somebody’s A list. But the fact is that all of us are needy. All of us are afraid. God meets us at that point of greatest need. It is when we come to that point of greatest fear and greatest need that we are most in touch with God. There comes a point in every life when we realize that we have been passed by, overlooked, excluded… it may be a critical illness, a divorce, a financial setback, or just plain getting old. And at that point God reaches out to us, graciously inviting us to the wedding feast.

But what of the guest who showed up without a tuxedo? Is there any special requirement for coming to the feast? I believe that the only requirement is a grateful heart. And if we keep in mind that the invitation to the feast is God’s gift and not our achievement, that we are invited not because WE are good but because GOD is good, then how can we not have grateful hearts.

Isak Dinesen retold the story of the wedding feast in her story "Babette's Feast," subsequently made into a film in Denmark. At the end of the film the title character throw an elaborate feast for the simple people of a remote Danish fishing village. Also present at the meal was a distinguished Danish military leader. At the meal's conclusion, the general raises his glass in a toast and says, "Man, my friends is frail and foolish. We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness we imagine God's grace to be limited..."
"But we are wrong; grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular." Gratitude is the dress code for the wedding feast.

But I want to let English poet George Herbert have the last word:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.