I love to tell the story...

Pentecost 20, Proper 23A

In the name of God: inspire us with your stories; guide us with your love.  Amen.

Sometimes I feel like my first language is irony.

Again, today, we have one of those challenging parables from Jesus.  Not the warm and fuzzy kind that turn into nice children’s sermons or coloring pages, but one of the ones that sets us back a bit – that makes us think, maybe a bit more than we were hoping to on a cool Sunday morning. 

But the reason I think my first language is irony is because when I was reading through this Gospel earlier this week, beginning the journey of finding words to share with you today, this song from the church of my upbringing jumped into my mind:

          “I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
          Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
          I love to tell the story because I know ‘tis true;
          It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.”

I bet y’all all love to tell this story, don’t you?  When your friends and family ask you why you go to church on Sundays, I’m sure this is the first story that leaps to mind: the story of the king who killed a bunch of people when they stood him up for his party, and then invited a bunch more, and then still had a problem with one of those, because he wasn’t dressed right.  Doesn’t this story of Jesus and his love just satisfy your longings?

The fact is, this parable, along with the one we heard last week, is challenging to hear.  These aren’t the kinds of parables that stand out for us as models of why we follow Jesus.  They’re not the kinds of stories that tend to get us excited about our faith, or that leave us feeling enveloped in the warm embrace of Christ’s love.

But in some ways, this parable is a bit like the one we heard last week: the parable of the wicked tenants.  That story was about people who were doing the work that the king had asked them to do, but they wanted to keep the benefits entirely for themselves.  When the king tried to intervene with his own representatives, they not only denied them, but they beat them and killed them, rather than giving in.  Eventually, the king overthrew those wicked tenants and replaced them with tenants who would do the job they were given to do.

This week, the story is sort of from the opposite direction.  This king was holding a wedding and had invited the crème de la crème of society.  They all agreed to come, but then failed to follow through.  They went about their regular lives, ignoring the king’s generosity, so the king condemned them.  Then, the king opened the gates wider – inviting strangers from the streets to join the feast.  They did, but one came without donning the traditional wedding robes that would have been appropriate to the occasion.  The king cast that one out from the party, into the outer darkness – reserving the good things for those who had come prepared.

One of the ways that these stories are linked is in that they were told around the same time – they were teachings given by Jesus in his last days.  You can almost imagine an exasperated Jesus, trying to get the wisdom he had to share into the hands of the followers as fast as he could – knowing that his time was drawing to a close.  He needed them to know what it meant to follow him, and to follow God.  It wasn’t all just rainbows and puppy kisses.  The work of following Christ into a deeper relationship with God is work.  Yes – there are incalculable rewards, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In the first story, the tenants wanted the rewards without holding up their end of the bargain.  God isn’t calling us into slavery, but into a relationship.  And that’s not how relationships work.  They require give and take.  They need both work and reward.

Then, in this next parable, the guests who were invited first said they wanted to be a part of it, but they didn’t follow through.  It’s not enough to just say that you accept the invitation.  You have to do your part by actually showing up. 

So, some others were brought in.  Others who would actually show up, and do their part to make the celebration a success.  But then there was that one…  The one who wasn’t wearing the wedding robe. 

It’s important to remember that parables aren’t literal.  No part is literal.  Every aspect of the story represents some larger truth.  But this thing about not wearing the right clothes is where I always catch myself really getting hung up in this one.  I just can’t imagine that God is that shallow.  If you want to come to church in your pajamas, I think God will rejoice and be glorified.  If you want to come to church in cutoff jeans and flip flops, I can’t imagine that God cares.  What God does care about is that we are faithful Christians who listen to and respond to the teachings of Christ.  God cares that we are led by the Holy Spirit into the world to make it a better place – to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

But the wedding robe in this parable is about more than making sure you’re wearing the right clothes.  That little piece of the story tells us that yes, it’s important to show up.  That’s better than all those who talked a big talk but didn’t follow through.  But it’s not enough to just show up.  We have to show up ready to join with God in the order of the day.

It’s not enough to do the work and hoard the benefits.

It’s not enough to say you’ll follow God, but then go off and do your own thing. 

It’s not even enough to just show up.

The truly faithful say they will show up, and then they do.  And when they do, they’re ready for the work.  And they do the work and spread its benefits beyond just themselves.

As Jesus stares down the shrinking span of the last days of his ministry on earth, it becomes increasingly important for him to make sure the followers didn’t just follow him, but that we would know how to follow him – and that they would know how to lead others when his time here was over

The Christian calling isn’t just to sign the membership book.  It isn’t just to come to church.  It isn’t even just to give to the church.  It is all of that, and more.  It’s all of that, and it’s allowing those first, easiest steps to change your life.  And then it’s about committing to changing the lives of others.  Sharing the good news.  Spreading the wealth.  Living the faith in every aspect of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings.

These stories may not be the most fun ones to tell, but the fact that they’re challenging doesn’t make them less important than the others.  If anything, it’s more important that we pay attention to them and learn from them.  These are stories about where the rubber meets the road.  These are the stories that make the “feel good” stories really feel good.

They may sound harsh, but like the whole of the Christian message, they are defined by and filled with God’s love.  Every day that we walk in the footsteps of Christ can’t be easy.  Sometimes this path will be downright hard.  But even the hard days are filled with Christ’s love.  Even the hard days help us to grow deeper in our relationships with each other and with God.

And that’s the point.  That’s where the joy comes from: not from having it easy or having it all for ourselves, but through having whatever we have with the love of God.  We may not always “love to tell the story”, but the story is always love.  With that love, we can face anything.  Amen.