We had a wedding here last weekend. And a lovely, happy wedding it was. But it was a little different from the wedding described by Jesus in this parable. If our wedding had been like Jesus’, this is what it would have looked like:

At about 3:30, half an hour before the ceremony was to begin, picture the bride’s parents sending the ushers and bridesmaids out into the streets to start rounding up the people who had been invited. “OK, we’re ready—everyone’s here. Come on in for the wedding now.” But the guests, to their surprise, don’t want to come in. They ignore the ushers and bridesmaids, and turn away; or even hit them, saying “Leave me alone, you and your stupid wedding.” So the attendants, rather startled, return to the church, reporting that the guests . . . are refusing to come!

Well, the bride’s parents are furious, furious enough even to hit back, if they had the chance; after all, the caterer’s expecting a certain number, the meals are already paid for, and the people have had weeks to RSVP if they didn’t want to come. But their immediate concern is to have a nice wedding, with a full church. So they calm themselves, and after a quick conference, the parents, pastor, bride, and groom decide to send the attendants back out into the streets, saying “Invite anyone you can find to come in, since our invited guests turned out to be jerks. It doesn’t matter who they are, whether we know them or not, whether we even like them or not—bring ‘em all in.”

This is beginning to sound quite unlike our typical wedding now, isn’t it?

So the ushers and bridesmaids go out into the streets of Paris, and invite everyone they come across to quick, run home and change, and come to a  wedding at the Paris Presbyterian Church, 241 W. Court St.—the one across from Joe’s Pizza. It will be a lovely wedding, they promise, and there will be a fine reception after.

Well before long, the church is full  of people, who are interested in being at the wedding, people who will enjoy it, people who will help make it a happy occasion and a nice afternoon. Everyone is all dressed up and pretty, except for one guy who didn’t bother to go home and change, even though he had plenty of time. Instead, he stubbornly insisted on showing up dirty, unshaven, in ugly ratty clothes. Otherwise, it’s a fine group indeed.

This is the crowd, then, at the wedding Jesus described, and we’re going to take a few minutes this morning to look at who’s there and why—why did Jesus include these particular people at his wedding?

The first set of people at Jesus’ wedding we’ll call “the Good People.” The king in the story said “bring anyone you can find, bad and good alike,” so we’ll assume they did indeed end up with a mixture of bad and good alike. We don’t know much about the Good People—we’re not told what makes them “good” in the king’s eyes—but we do know that one good thing they did was to accept the invitation when they got the chance. They were offered the opportunity to attend a nice wedding and a fancy reception afterward; and perhaps more importantly, a chance to cooperate with the king, and they responded.

They got this chance only because some other people chose not to respond; they thought they had more important things to do than respond to the king’s invitation.

Luke’s version of the parable, in Luke 14, makes this refusal the main point of the story. “All alike started to make excuses,” his version reads. “The first said, ‘I have bought a piece of land and must go see it.’ Another said ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out.’ Yet another said, ‘I have just got married and so am unable to come.’” All of them had some other business to attend to, something they regarded as more important than responding to the king.

It reminds us of those who turned down Jesus’ invitation to become disciples, saying “But I need a place to live,” or “No, I need to spend time with the people at home first.” All of them, too, had excuses. Jesus’ answer to them was “no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God,” and in the Lukan parable the same idea is suggested: “Blessed is anyone,” it says, “who will share the meal in the Kingdom of God.”

For the parable, of course, is about the invitation to share God’s kingdom. The wedding feast operates, as it often does in Jesus’ stories, as a symbol of the kingdom of God—and, some would say, of heaven.

Now, a wedding feast is a fun thing, right?  And the Kingdom of God is a good place to be, isn’t it? And heaven is not usually thought of as something to be avoided. Why, then, do the invited guests turn down this invitation to such a good thing?

C.S. Lewis wrote a couple of stories which reflect his belief that a conscious choice to avoid heaven is how most people who wind up in hell instead get there; they choose to be in hell, or outside of heaven, rather than inside. One of the stories is found in his series of books about the land of Narnia, written for young readers. Another is called “The Great Divorce,” “divorce” meaning the great separation, or divide, between hell and heaven.

In Lewis’ story, there are buses that go back and forth regularly between hell and heaven, and people can get on them any time they want and go to the other place. Hell is pictured as a dirty, crime-filled city, and heaven a beautiful sunny countryside; and most of the story has to do with a busload of people from hell who are visiting heaven and, one by one, decide to go back to the ugly dangerous city instead of staying in heaven. Some of them are determined that they won’t be made fools of: “You can’t fool me,” they say. “Sure this looks like heaven, and feels real, and sounds real, and smells real, but I know it’s all a fake. I’m too smart for this. I’m going back to the real world.”

Others are too proud to stay: “You think I’m going to accept charity, that I would let someone hand me this beautiful life? I believe in working for a living, in earning  my way along, in lifting myself up by my own bootstraps. I’m going back to the city where I can earn my keep, thank you.”

Others have habits or addictions or practices which are unwelcome in heaven, and which they decide are more important to them than being in heaven. “I’ll go back to the city,” they say, “where I can keep my hatred, nurture my anger, indulge the cheap short-lived thrills I get from using other people.”

And others decide they don’t like the company: “Well if she’s in heaven, then I don’t want anything to do with heaven. I didn’t know that’s the type of people they let in here.” They prefer their standards of acceptability to God’s.

Whatever the reason,  they all choose to get back on the bus and go back to hell. They all decide there’s something more important to them, no matter how trivial or misguided it seems to us, than being in heaven. One of the angels sums up the attitude: “There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality.

You see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner  miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. You call it ‘the Sulks.’ But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Wrath and Grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride. . . there are innumerable  forms of this choice. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. (Because) no soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.” End of quote.   

          People make choices not to do what’s best for them, even choices to stay away from wedding feasts and the kingdom of God. They make such choices when they’ve become confused about what’s important, when they’re determined to hang on to pride or old comfortable ideas or fear or anger, rather than opening their eyes to see the possibilities God offers. What do we learn from the good people in Jesus’ story? To respond to the important things when we get the chance, rather than holding on to our busyness or hurt or anger or pride or dependencies. The Good People are the ones that recognize their opportunity to feast with the king.

Interestingly enough, the parable says there are bad people at the feast, too. “Bring anyone you can find,” the king says, “bad and good alike.” The wedding feast, and the Kingdom of God, turn out to be a mixture, of good and bad.

In a way, this surprises us, thinking of good and bad together in the kingdom; but in another way it shouldn’t, because several of the parables teach exactly the same point: that God’s community of believers is going to be a mixture of good and bad.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a field full of good seed, but an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, so that the wheat and the weeds grew up together. At harvest time, the reapers will sort out the weeds from the wheat and burn them.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a net cast into the sea which brings in a haul of all kinds of fish. Then afterwards, the fishermen sit down, collect the good ones in baskets and throw away those that are of no use.

This is how it will be at the end of time, he continues: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the upright. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, Jesus said, then, at the end of time, he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left, and send those who did his will to eternal life and those who did not to eternal punishment. There are many stories which show the mixture of good and bad in God’s kingdom.

And one thing common to all the stories stands out: Who does the sorting, of good and bad, and when? God does, in God’s own time. The wheat is not told to identify the weeds and pull them out; the useful fish are not told to distance themselves from the useless ones; the sheep and goats are not separated until the final judgment, and then only by the Son of Man. It is God who does the sorting, according to God’s notions of what’s good and bad; that’s not our job. Neither the wedding guests nor the servants are told to try to separate the good from the bad people; their only job is to come to the feast, not to pronounce judgment on one another. God will do that part; it is no concern of ours.

What do we learn from the presence of bad people in Jesus’ story? That it’s our job to sit and feast with them, whoever they are—not to judge, sort them out, or label them.

And there’s one more guy in Jesus’ story: the guy who, when everyone else came dressed nice for the wedding, came dressed ugly. We have expectations about how one should be dressed at a wedding; so did Jesus and his listeners; and apparently, so does God at the final feast—the people are expected to be prepared. It isn’t enough just to make it inside the door; one must be properly prepared—show the right attitude, display acceptable behavior.

Again, there are other parables which reinforce this point: one of them describes another wedding, and wedding attendants whose job it was to hold up lanterns to light the bridegroom’s way to the ceremony. Some of the attendants are there in their places, and have their lamps . . . but they have no oil, so they aren’t much good; they might as well have not come. Because they haven’t done their job, they are turned away from that wedding feast. It isn’t enough to just show up; one must come prepared.

Our work does not end once we’re inside the Christian community, once we feel we are safely on God’s side. There are still expectations of us; there are still standards of right and wrong behavior. We cannot become complacent and lax just because we’ve “made it” into the “in crowd.” But, once again, it’s the king who decides who’s prepared and who isn’t, not the other guests; and the king who dismisses him, not them.

What do we learn from the dressed-ugly man in Jesus’ story? That our attitudes and behavior must continue to measure up, even after we’re in the door of the kingdom.

So, (1) there are choices which must be made, sometimes difficult ones, and we must choose wisely in order to be among the Good People. (2) And there are Bad People to mix with and tolerate, but it is not our job to decide who they are or what should be done with them. (3) And there are continuing expectations if we don’t wish to be counted among the Ugly, the unprepared.

But most of all . . .  there is a wedding feast. God has provided it; God has made it available to all of us, whether we happened to be among the first invited or not; God wants us to come.

Wedding feasts are great places to be; welcome to the party.

Let’s pray: God thank you for inviting us to your banquet, your kingdom. Encourage us, and all people who receive the invitation, to respond positively and joyfully, and as part of your community, to treat one another the way we should.