Within the Ribbons

How refreshing it is to peruse Emily Post’s 1922 guide to proper Etiquette.  Here we learn that:

‘Invitations to a private ball, no matter whether the ball is to be given in a private house, or whether the hostess has engaged an entire floor of the biggest hotel in the world, announce merely that Mr. and Mrs. Somebody will be “At Home,” and the word “dancing” is added almost as though it were an afterthought in the lower left corner, the words “At Home” being slightly larger than those of the rest of the invitation.’

Oh, how delicious!

In the section on wedding invitations, this marvelous guide also provides instructions for what is called “The Train Card,” which, we are instructed, is to be used “if the wedding is in the country.”  It reads:

“A special train will leave Grand Central Station at 12:45 pm, arriving at Ridgefield at 2:45, pm,” etc.

Oh, how scrumptious!

Not only does Mrs. Post provide the proper form for wedding invitations of many variants, she also informs her readers of the proper form of acceptance and regret, with the interesting note that “an invitation to the church only requires no answer whatever.”  After all, who cares if you come to the church, when it’s the reception that costs all the money!

Long ago I fell afoul of Emily Post’s guidelines for wedding invitations and all manner of other things.  And I have recently earned a reputation for the serial committal of a new kind of faux pas: when in receipt of an e-vite invitation, I have more than once clicked the response that says, “Maybe,” and I have been mocked and derided by my friends for this weak and uncomplimentary response to invitations.

It turns out that the whole notion of allowing a “Maybe” response to an e-vite invitation is under attack by the Internet mavens.  Here’s what one blogger wrote:

‘As data, “maybe” is… useless…

‘Maybe is a magnet for neuroses. It salves guilt complexes and incites passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors.

‘“Maybe” sometimes means maybe, but it can also mean, “I’m not coming but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Or even, “I plan to come but I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute if something better comes along.” Some people even use maybe to mean, “I won’t make dinner but I’ll come for dessert.”

‘When you invite twelve people to a restaurant dinner via a web service, at least four will say maybe. Do you reserve a table for twelve? When eight show up and range themselves at opposite ends of the table (“because other people might be joining us”) you have an awkward table filled with gaps. The empty seats haunt the meal, suggesting social failure.

‘But if you call the restaurant at the last minute to change the reservation to eight, two of the maybes will show up, like ants at a picnic. They’ll have nowhere to sit, and they’ll blame you. (“I told you I might come.”)

‘How can you know what “maybe” means?  … you can’t. All you can do is phone people and ask whether they’re leaning toward coming or not….  If they’re the passive-aggressive type, they will continue to evade the snare of commitment. “I’m probably coming,” they’ll say.’·

It is this failure to commit that makes the “Maybe” response so infuriating.  And if it’s infuriating to respond “Maybe” to an invitation to a friend’s dinner, what does it say to God if our response to his invitation to be a part of the kingdom of heaven is a tepid “Maybe”?

If Jesus had had a blog he might have posted on it today’s parable of the king who gave a wedding banquet that none of those invited decided to come to.  He might even have linked to the blogger I just mentioned, finding resonance with his rant against the “Maybe.”

“I have swung open the gates of the kingdom of heaven to you,” Jesus might say, “and your answer to me is that you plan to come but you reserve the right to change your mind at the last minute if something better comes along?!?!

“I have paved the way of righteousness for you and you want me to know that you can’t make it to dinner, but you might be there for dessert?!?!”

“I have prepared a table for you, I have anointed your heads with oil, your cups overflow, and still you are not coming, but you don’t want to hurt my feelings.”

Imagine what it would have been like if Jesus had given his disciples instructions to prepare an upper room for the Passover and reminded them to be there well before sundown, and they’d said to him, “Maybe we’ll come.”

Imagine that later in this Mass, after we have prepared the sacred vessels, chanted the sacred chants, we have invoked the Holy Spirit to come down, repeated Jesus’ own holy words, offered the Bread and the Wine… imagine that I hold up the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood for all to see.   “Behold,” I say, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are we who are called to his supper.”

And you look lazily up from you pews, and reply, “Maybe.”

The sad truth is that the world and the church are full of Maybes and probably always have been.

Maybes hear the invitation to God’s kingdom and do not take it seriously.

Maybes hear the call to work in God’s vineyard, and look for something else to do.

Maybes hear the promise of God’s love and suspect that there is something better to be had in the world.

Maybes see the shadow of Christ’s cross and think that it doesn’t mean very much.

Maybes can recognize a hymn tune but can’t, or simply won’t, sing the words.

Maybes tread the ground near God’s Sacraments but never look up to see them.

Imagine that I asked the parents and godparents of the child who is to be baptized today the questions I will ask them in just a few minutes:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?


Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?


Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?


Do you turn to Christ and accept him as your Savior?


Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t; it’s hard to say.  It’s hard to put my whole trust in God’s grace and love.  It’s hard to follow and obey him as my Lord.  So maybe I will, but maybe I won’t.

And what about the rest of us?  At every baptism, we are asked to give a clear answer to some important questions:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Now, it may be that “Maybe” is, in fact, an honest answer to these questions.  But it is not the right answer.  And so the church gives us a better option, since merely saying “Yes, I will” is hard to believe.

“I will, with God’s help” is a lot more plausible.  It allows for the frank honesty that following through with these promises is hard to do, but that with God’s help it’s worth a try!


If you listened carefully to the Gospel this morning, you might be struggling with the details.  What is going on here?  A king gives a wedding banquet but no one comes?  And some of the invitees kill the slaves who bring the invitations?  So the king sends troops to avenge their deaths?  Then people are gathered up from the streets to come to the party, except that one guy, who can’t possibly have been planning on being at a ball, isn’t dressed properly and so is bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness?  What is going on here?!?!?

What we are seeing is the collision of two worlds.  It is as though the invitation to the wedding banquet was prepared with all the old world consideration of Emily Post.  The wording was just so, asking for the “honor of your presence,” not merely the “pleasure of your company,” and  “honour” was spelled the old-fashioned way, with a ‘u,’ as Mrs. Post instructs it must be.  The size of the invitation is 5 1/8 inches wide by 7 3/8 inches deep, precisely.  The invitations have been engraved.  Maybe even a special train has been arranged to leave 30th Street Station.

And it is as though in the face of all this precision, all this effort, we have replied with an email that says with a shrug, “Maybe.”

Jesus is trying to convey the inadequacy of such a response to an invitation of this sort.  Jesus is trying to get past the maybes of our lives and to get us to Yes!  He is trying to show us how sad and boring it is to meet his invitation with a maybe, how much it misses the point to be constantly on the lookout for a better party.  And in his parable, he is asking us what he needs to do to convince us that the kingdom of heaven is worth it.  “Do I have to bind you hand and foot and threaten to toss you into outer darkness?!?”



Returning to Emily Post’s Etiquette; one of the more charming and antiquated bits of guidance in the weddings section of the book is the instruction about reserved seats in church.  The mothers of bride and groom are instructed how to write out cards if specific pews are reserved for specific people.  But, we are told, “a card for the reserved enclosure but no especial pew is often inscribed “Within the Ribbons.”

I think this is a marvelous turn of phrase: Within the Ribbons.  Who wouldn’t want to be within the ribbons, whatever that might mean.  It sounds lovely without being restrictive, special without being snooty, set apart without being inaccessible.  Within the Ribbons.

As I hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as I experience the call of Christ in my own life, and as I try to help you hear it in your lives, I believe that Jesus wants each and every one of his children – every breathing soul and every beating heart – to be “Within the Ribbons.”  He wants us all to be at the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.

And his teaching is the way he tries to get us there, past the maybes into the “Yes” that brings us within the ribbons.

It is as if a king had engaged an entire floor of the biggest hotel in the world, but the invitation, in that old-fashioned, maybe even snobby, way, simply reads “At Home”.

If I received such an invitation, it would be as if two worlds were colliding.  I’d have to look up Emily Post just to know I was being invited to a ball!

But God willing, I would finally understand the importance of the invitation, and I’d be eager to reply.

And of course, I’d be a fool to send a email reply that just said “Maybe.”  I’d be better advised to make sure my formal shoes are comfortable for dancing, which I see the invitation has included, almost as if it is an afterthought.  But dancing there will be, till late into the night.  And that, I trust, is what the kingdom of heaven is like.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

 9 October 2011

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia 



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Posted on October 10, 2011 .