Vineyards are still aflame in the once-beautiful valleys of California but, please God, they will flourish again. Many have survived the flames. And after three weeks of stories about bad labor relations in the vineyard, today we hear a word of hope.
I first preached this sermon several years ago, but I think it still seems apt. Maybe even more so. The theme of today’s readings turns to
abundance, to the harvest festival. There’s a little mayhem here and there, but nothing worse than the evening news. The Kingdom of Heaven is like …a dinner party, a great wedding feast…
Sometimes you still hear it said that real Christians have a hard time having a good time. If something is a lot of fun, it’s probably sinful and may even be fattening. The American satirist, H. L. Mencken, defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Laughter itself has been condemned now and then and a lot of saints and mystics kept skulls on their desks to remind them of cheerful things like the inevitability of death. I can think of only a few saints who thought highly of fun. St. Philip Neri was one. He used to go around Rome balancing pillows on his head to make the children laugh. (Of course, scholars these days suspect that he was suffering from manic depressive psychosis.)
The puritanical attitude was pretty well summed up by Lord Light, an English politician, who said back in 1935, “People must not do things for fun. We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any act of Parliament.”
But Isaiah can think of nothing more wonderful as an image of God’s restoration of Israel than a huge feast on the Holy Mountain with lots of pure choice wine. Here there is no treading on the grapes of wrath, but a prophecy which in time will come to figure in the Mass for the Dead, “when every tear will be wiped away and death is destroyed forever.” This is no ordinary party, not the noisy little bashes our students throw on Saturday nights. At this banquet, we will, as Isaiah promises, “behold our God, to whom we looked to save us.”
Knowing when and how to celebrate lies at the heart of Christian spirituality. Appropriately enough, there is a joke in today’s epistle, which continues our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here his sense of humor is a little hard to spot. But he is deliberately having fun with his Greek converts, who knew all about mystery religions. He tells them that he has, in fact, been initiated into a mystery cult. But his cult is very simple. The secret knowledge he has learned is how to do with and do without. How to feast and how to fast. He does both with a willing heart and a ready spirit.
Jesus himself knew how to party, and he was roundly criticized for it by the scribes and Pharisees, who called him names: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ [Matt. 11:18-19].
It gets down to being able to accept the Kingdom of Heaven like a little child. Paul tells us, “God will supply your needs fully, in a way worthy of his magnificent riches in Christ Jesus.” So what is there to fret about? Jesus told us, “don’t be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Take a good look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?[Matt. 6:25-26]. And St. Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” [1 Cor. 10:31].
And, of course, the gospel reading is also about a party. It’s a little like an Italian wedding or an Irish funeral. Everyone eventually has a good time despite the bit of mayhem outside on the lawn. The important point Jesus is making in this parable (besides the Kingdom of God being like a party) is that only those who actively refuse to join in the fun are excluded. They actually exclude themselves, like the fellow at the end of the story who hasn’t put on a wedding garment. Like everyone else in a Middle Eastern wedding party, he would have been given an appropriate garment if he didn’t have one. It is like having the maitre d’ supply you with a jacket and tie when you show up at a fine restaurant in a tee-shirt. This fellow simply wouldn’t wear it. Some reject the invitation passively, some aggressively. But in the end, the hall is filled — both (and Jesus is very clear about it) the good and the bad, those tax collectors and thieves and prostitutes who storm the very gates of heaven.
What the scriptures have to tell us today seems pretty clear. First, it is not about some kind of irresponsible frolic. We still need to temper our anticipation with the facts of real life, especially the great imbalance that keeps some people beggars and others feasters. The joy of God’s realm is deeper and more lasting than some Saturday-night bash. It is a future reality that casts its bright shadow ahead. All our joys are hints of what is to come. There is no room here for cynicism and gloom, despite what happens in Washington or on Wall Street.
The second point is related to the first: unlike school parties and political parties, the true joy of God’s realm consists in unbroken human solidarity, begun now and reaching its fulfillment in eternity — a unity of all peoples beyond any division of race or class or economic condition. Liberals and conservatives, even. And this is important — our inclusion in the feast of heaven hangs on our attitude now, especially towards those the world so easily despises — the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, and homeless. It’s a diversity thing.
For Jesus, God’s Kingdom is a real party, a wedding banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. And we all have received an engraved invitation. But it is also important to remember that not all of life is a feast. Not yet. Plenty of people still out there in the highways and byways haven’t received their invitations yet. Quite a lot of folks aren’t even much interested in coming. There is still work to do. And that’s the third point.
So it’s important to recognize what our role is in Jesus’ parable. Not just whom we identify with, but whom we are supposed to identify with. If we think of ourselves as God’s servants, envoys and representatives of Christ, then these words are addressed to us: “Go out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.” The word for that is evangelization, spreading the good news. And the best way of doing that is not so much with words, but with our lives. The fact is, we are the invitation sent by God. If we do our part, people will read us correctly. Good and bad alike. So we might as well begin by acting as if we’re going to the party ourselves. Work hard, but enjoy the ride.