Sermon for 19th Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 23 2020
Isaiah 25: 1-9 Psalm 23
Phil. 4: 1-9 Matthew 22: 1-14
The boss walks into the floor supervisor’s office. He turns and says, “So, do you believe in life after death?” The supervisor turns and replies, “Yes, sir, I do.” The boss says, “Oh, well, that’s okay then! Because after you left early yesterday for your grandfather’s funeral, he stopped in to see you!”
The Gospel invites us to take the task of living very seriously. We are here to learn how to give and receive love. And when we fail to do this serious work, we find that we live under the judgment of God – as God leaves us in our selfishness and loneliness. The supervisor takes seriously the idea of life after death, but doesn’t realize that the values of the life to come should express themselves in the life we live now.
When talking with people, everyone seems to think it’s a good idea to make a difference. Making a difference is the stuff of commencement addresses, strategic plans, and election promises. But making a difference is an unexamined conviction. Making a difference is really a way of saying, that we care enough to do something, to be somewhere we may not feel comfortable. The world has a myriad of problems to be fixed, and while we all have a lot on our plate, it’s good to take time, occasionally or often, to address a few of them. Did Jesus make a difference? It’s not clear that he really did.
Matthew, on the other hand, paints the whole story on a much larger canvas. Jesus is the son whose father is a great king. That king held a banquet to celebrate his son’s wedding. Matthew foresees that the marriage feast isn’t going to be a conventional one. After all, the people originally invited weren’t interested. Some went about their business while others attacked and even killed those who brought the invitations. This is beginning to sound uncomfortably like Israel’s response to God and the prophets. The king destroys their city, just as Jerusalem was destroyed in 70CE. A whole bunch of other ragtag people are invited to the banquet, just as the Gentiles flooded the church. The new people include the good, bad and ugly.
So far, so affirming; so inclusive, so reassuring of the church’s self image. Israel was terrible, but we’re terrific. It turns out one of the guests isn’t wearing a wedding garment. He is not only shown the door, but receives the full gnashing of teeth and the outer-darkness treatment. This seems so unfair. He is probably poor, and certainly was not expecting a wedding invitation. Matthew is shaking the complacency of the Gentiles, and reminding them that the same expectations made of the Jews will be made of them too. Salvation isn’t a piece of cake – it isn’t guaranteed.
The wedding garment has caused confusion to many generations of interpreters. Augustine saw it as love; Luther saw it as faith; Calvin saw it as both faith and works. In recent centuries, a common theme has been that the wealthy men of the time would provide suitable garments for their dining guests. In the early centuries of the church, Christians had less difficulty with the interpretation. When they heard the word robe, they thought of one thing – the baptismal robe. Baptism meant not just a ceremony with words and water, but also a new social obligation. It meant putting the rest of our life in jeopardy to enjoy being at the wedding banquet. If we weren’t prepared to take steps to show that being at that banquet meant everything to us, then we’d better not show up.
In other words, making a difference has a particular understanding for Christians. It doesn’t mean that God is overwhelmed and we ought to give up a bit of our spare time to help out God’s divine action in the world. It means that God has already made a difference that matters in Christ, and the crucial way we respond is to allow ourselves to be made different by Christ’s crucial difference. Baptism is the definitive moment when God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church and inheritors of the kingdom. In baptism, we are allowing ourselves to be made different by the difference made by Christ. Gandhi’s much quoted expression, “Be the difference you want to see in the world” may be a cliché, but it brings us to the heart of this parable.
The robe signifies baptism. Baptism signifies not making a difference, but being remade, being reshaped in accordance with the difference made by Christ. Simply seeking to make a difference in the world without first allowing ourselves to be made different may not be the right approach. The banquet is for people who know that the question that really matters is, “Have you been made different? Have you allowed Jesus to make a difference in you?”
It is customary for wedding guests to be given garments to wear to the banquet. It was unthinkable to refuse to wear these garments. That would insult the host, who could only assume that the guest was arrogant and thought he didn’t need these garments, or that he did not want to take part in the wedding celebration. The wedding clothes picture the righteousness needed to enter God’s kingdom – the total acceptance in God’s eyes that Christ gives every believer. Righteousness – not the holier than thou idea, but meaning - being in right relationship with God. Christ has provided this garment of righteousness for everyone, but each person must choose to put it on to enter the King’s banquet, the kingdom of God. Everyone must choose how to respond to God’s call. There is an open invitation, but we must be ready. We must decide!
In the parable of the Banquet, the host is probably a rich person, considering all that’s involved – the servants, the big house and all the preparations. When everything is ready, a servant is sent to inform the invited guests, maybe as a courtesy or as an escort for their own safety. The sending is needed in the story so we can learn of the guest’s excuses, their lack of interest - their thanks but no thanks responses. One needs to care for his farm, another to business demands. A group seize the slaves, they don’t bother with excuses, but take out their frustration on the one sent. The excuses tell us that those invited are wealthy also. They are peers of the host and have more important things to deal with.
Perhaps we can relate to this from the busyness of our lives. Surely, we all have had invitations we wanted to go and be a part of some celebration, but other times when it just didn’t seem right. In the story, not one of the invited guests comes to the banquet. The troops are dispatched and the city is destroyed. The story continues with the king sending the servants into the streets to bring both good and bad to the banquet. We must not get cocky and presume our position. We think that we are good and our seat is reserved, but if we don’t respond when told, “Come, for everything is ready now” we may be in for a surprise. When it comes to the kingdom of God, matters of timing are not up to us, but are up to God.
But there is so much more in this parable; there is also an example. We hear the example of, “blessed is the one who provides hospitality to those who cannot return the favor.” The parable is also about hospitality. Hospitality that involves: inviting friends for a casual supper or impromptu barbeque, welcoming the new neighbors with a meal, taking food to fellow church members recovering from surgery or serious illness or loss of a loved one. And that’s for family and friends, but Jesus was talking about strangers - down-and-out- we have no idea strangers. How well we are ministering to them is a measure of our hospitality.
Hospitality invites, escorts, accompanies and introduces, reaches out, brings in, and as it gathers confidence, it begins to notice those usually overlooked because they don’t look like us. Sure, we can say that hospitality is different today than two thousand years ago. We are different. The threat is different. However, the parable is telling us not to be satisfied with dropping a ten-dollar bill in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas and think that we have done our part. Every congregation has a collective responsibility to respond thoughtfully and prayerfully to the human needs in its wider community.
Responding means opening our hearts for God’s mission in the church. It is being and becoming more aware of the needs in the community that we should respond to. We all count in the eyes of God and in the body of Christ. Everyone is needed, everyone is invited to the heavenly banquet. Amen.