In West Africa—the Ivory Coast to be specific—there’s a huge, ginormous cathedral. It looks like a big pearl rising from the surrounding squalor. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro is listed in Guinness World Records as the largest church in the world, surpassing the previous record holder, Saint Peter’s Basilica. It has an area of 323,000 square feet and is over five hundred feet high. It is said to be spectacular. But not everyone, including the Vatican, thinks it’s all that spectacular.
When the West African dictator, Felix Boigny decided to memorialize himself in such a lavish way, it was obvious that he wanted to go big or go home. This is regrettable because his country is overwhelmed with poverty and spending the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to construct the church might have been a poor way to go big.
The problem is not just the size of the building. It’s not just the ornate architecture. It’s the fact that this massive cathedral in a poverty-stricken country, for the most part, remains empty. There are about 350 who call this church home—yet there’s room for 18,000! It was built, but nobody comes. Almost nobody, anyway. The big, empty church in Africa is not exactly the same as the situation in our text, but it reminds us of it. For certain it is a place of awesomeness, but no one really seems to care.
In our text we have a king who is hosting a wedding party. It’s not a big church the king is building, but, rather, a huge, mother-of-all-parties he’s building, or throwing. But no one wants to come, and it looks like his banquet hall is going to be empty!
Jesus is telling this story as a parable. Now the thing about parables that we need to remember is that parables are the use of language when typical language isn’t big enough to convey adequate meaning. The odd, metaphorical language of parables conveys a broader, deeper meaning.
In this parable Jesus is teaching the chief priests and elders about God’s invitation to Israel to attend the wedding banquet of God’s Son. He is alluding to how they offered excuses, and even executed God’s messengers. Even when God then extended a salvific invitation to all they still meet it with resistance.
On this “Welcome Back” Sunday, we look to get back into our regular church routine after a summer filled with comings and goings. Ministry teams start back up; our music department has the choirs in full swing, youth group kicks off today, so does Sunday School. It is a time of the year where we consider, again, our response to the welcoming God who is always inviting us to something awesome. And to do that we are going to look at the Inviter, the Invitation and the Invitees.
Move 1: God, the Inviter
Let’s first consider the Inviter… One of the most amazing things about God is that God is an inviting God. God is always inviting us to come: come to the waters, come home, come to the banquet, come to an abundant life, come to eternal life, come to worship, come to God. And always with that invitation is a hearty “Welcome!”
In this story, the king, who is God, is excited about his banquet. The calf has been fattened and slaughtered, the wine has aged, the tables are set, the DJ and band have been hired. And God is super jazzed about the feast.
God can’t wait for the people to start rolling in for this “party of the eternity”! This is the God we love, worship and serve— a God who invites us to the dance, invites us to be a part of what God is doing. God has made preparations for the feast, God wants everyone to be present to honor the Son and his bride. God does not want any to miss this event. When it comes to going big or going home—God always goes big—but in the considerate, compassionate way, not a selfish dictator way.
The take away here is that God is always inviting. Every day is an invitation. Every interruption is an invitation. Every moment is an invitation to party with God. The question becomes though, what, exactly, is God inviting us to? Besides a grand party—what’s in this invitation?
Move 2: The Invitation
For generations God has been inviting people to be in relationship with God. But not just any relationship, not just a simple friend request on Facebook or a cursory “Follow” on Twitter, and certainly not a click of the “Maybe I’ll Attend” button on an e-vite.
God invites human beings into a deep relationship with the divine where life on earth is transcended into a place of spiritual wholeness, where never again can the things of this world consume us or overwhelm us.
God’s invitation is… An invitation to service—Go and make disciples says Jesus in Matthew 28. It’s an invitation to an abundant life says Jesus in John 10. Throughout the Psalms we see it’s an invitation to worship, praise, and glorify. Revelation reminds us that it’s an invitation to enjoy the presence of Jesus forever. The prophets tell us it’s an invitation to turn to God in times of need. It’s an invitation to experience rest that can only come from Jesus. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all tell us it’s an invitation to eternal life.
When we break it all down, and consider all the possibilities, we can see the amazing awesomeness of the invitation. And yet, many still treat this invitation as a simple friend request on Facebook; a cursory follow on Twitter; a “Maybe I’ll attend” click on an e-vite.
Move 3: The Invitees
The invitation is amazing and awesome, yet so many invitees simply ignore it or let other priorities supersede. But why? Well, frankly, it comes down to the invitees themselves.
For the people Jesus was addressing—the religious authorities—they were convinced they already had everything figured out. For others, they were simply unbelieving—the invite was too good to be true. And for others still, the things of this world seemed more appealing. But then there were, and still are, others who think even differently.
A Jesuit priest was doing a long term visit at a church in Mexico. From the beginning he observed young families coming up to the cathedral on a Sunday morning. As each man approached the church doors, he handed his wife or girlfriend through the door, then took his place outside among the other men. This group of men stood, smoking cigarettes and talking, on the steps of the cathedral until their loved ones emerged from the church. After weeks of observing this the priest decided to inquire about the situation, so he walked out the church door and up to the men.
“Good morning, gentlemen” the priest said.
“Good morning, Father.”
“I see you escort the ladies to Mass, then wait outside.”
“You don’t go into the cathedral yourselves?”
“No, not generally.”
“Well, that’s puzzling. Aren’t you Catholics?”
“Of course we’re Catholics,” one said. “But we’re not fanatics.”
And there it is, isn’t it? To be a church goer one must be a fanatic—one who is filled with excessive zeal, one who is extreme, one who is annoying, judgmental, narrow-minded. So perhaps this was the problem with the people the king invites to his banquet. They didn’t want to be considered fanatics.
Is that still true today? Do we limit our church life, our God talk, our Christ-like behavior because we don’t want to be seen as fanatics?
It must be noted, to not go to the party, one has to reject the invitation. If you’re not at the party, it’s not for want of an invitation. Everybody gets an invitation. Even if you’re not a “somebody” according to the world’s standards, and the world labels you a “nobody”— you get an invitation. It’s a general invite to the people of the world. What’s surprising is that many of the invitees reject the invitation! Leaving the king to say and think, “You’re kidding, right?”
The invitation is treated casually by some, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. After all, this is the wedding of the king’s son! This is the event of the century! This is huge! And yet people treat this invite with nonchalance and even hostility. Seriously? What could be more important than this event?
Now, I get it. It’s tough. It’s tough to accept one more invitation. It’s tough to put one more thing on the already packed full calendar. And yes, there are some things that we should say “No” to, and reject them because of such reasoning—it is healthy to say “No” sometimes. But we need to ask ourselves: Are we considering faithfully and prayerfully all the invitations that come to us? Are we saying yes to the life giving ones and no to the life robbing ones? Or do we need to rethink and reconsider all our invitations?
We don’t need to go all the way to the Ivory Coast to find an empty church—there are many much, much closer. It’s mind boggling to think that such is true because…
God invites us in spite of our background.
God invites us without regard to our level of education or our ability.
God invites us without regard to our bank account.
God invites us without regard to our race or gender, our sexual orientation.
God invites us because…
God is building something for us.
God is building a present for us—God is building a future for us.
God is inviting us to come to a grand banquet, where we can be present in what God is doing.
The last thing we should want to do is to treat such an opportunity casually, indifferently or even with hostility. No, we want to RSVP in the most rejoicing terms possible—“God, I accept your ‘Friend’ request, I will ‘Follow’ you; ‘Yes!’ I will come to your party—and I don’t care what the world thinks of it.
So may we, on this Welcome Sunday and beyond, keep ourselves ever aware of the incredible and awesome invitation that we have been given—by God. May we always be mindful that this invitation is to encounter the divine, where purpose and meaning and direction and comfort and call and hope and peace, and joy are found. It is an invitation where we find a welcome that is matched nowhere else. Amen.