Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 15, 2017
The 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A, RCL)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
To Accept the Invitation is to Accept our Responsibility

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Parables are designed to grab us, to catch us with the known, but then to challenge, to make us uncomfortable, with some new learning.

That, I suspect, is certainly true today as it must have been for Jesus’ first disciples and community.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus begins with a very familiar theme – the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Wedding Banquet.  Now we’ve been hearing about the kingdom of God from some time now, and the comparison to a wedding is nothing new.  At other times Jesus will compare the kingdom to a bride and her attendants, but today it’s the banquet itself and the king as host.

A rather safe beginning.

But then this rather ordinary scene turns extraordinary.  The guests refuse to come.  That in itself is enough to shock both ancient and modern ears, but Jesus goes on – not only do the guests refuse to come to the feast, they eventually beat and kill the king’s messengers.

At this point, after a gasp, we realize that this is a not a true story; but rather a metaphorical story about God’s kingdom.  For the ancient audience, and especially Jesus first followers, this metaphor, extreme as it sounds today, would have made perfect sense.  In a world crowded with religious tension and hostility, and the growing discord between Jesus and the religious authorities, the violence that befalls both the king’s messengers and the guests would seem reasonable.  Of course the guests would have killed the king’s messengers – that is what befell the prophets; and of course the king would retaliate with force – that is what happened to their ancestors as they refused God’s reign.

So far, so good.

Even the new invitation would have be well received, if not fully expected.  For the disciples and many of those gathered around Jesus, this the new invitation that went out from king following the original rejections, would include them – they were the new guest.  They had been invited to a new feast in ways unheard of before.  The king stood before them, even now, and had dared to dine with them, a motley crew of sometimes saints and sinners.  And they had said yes! 

As new guests themselves, they likely would have heard the challenge embedded within this new invitation without much difficulty, namely that they, too, were called to extend the new invitation to Jew and Gentile alike.  Remarkable as this invitation was for the time, even that challenge would have been rather comfortable for the new guests to hear.  And so, over the coming years, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women and children, slaves and masters, would be welcomed to the table as participants, as patrons, and even as disciples and leaders on the Way.

But then it all changes.  What seemed to be so good, so comforting, to those new religious insiders, suddenly becomes immensely discomforting.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Suddenly the feast does not seem so easy.

And that’s exactly the point.  Yes, the kingdom is opened in radically new ways.  Yes, all, regardless of economic or religious status are invited into God’s kingdom of joy and grace.

But gathering with God is not all that God’s kingdom is about.  Yes, all are invited; but there is something more. 

And this is where it gets uncomfortable – because this is where Jesus begins to speak not about the others, the religious elite and Pharisees, but about his immediate community, his disciples then, and us today. 

When we come, we are to be changed.  When we come to banquet, we are to be transformed.

The old clothes – whatever we were wearing when we first heard the great news of our invitation to the feast – those old clothes are to be put away, and new clothes are to be taken on.  The old clothes are to be thrown away to be replaced by the new clothes of the kingdom.

Now, I know someone out there is saying, hold on, now – its all well and good to expect new and appropriate clothes for a wedding, but if you call someone right off the street or out of Kroger straight to a wedding, you can’t expect them to come perfectly prepared! 

So, before we get too caught by the king’s encounter with the one guest who hasn’t put on a new robe, we must remember that in the ancient world it was customary for the host to provide ceremonial garments to all guests. 

We still have vestiges of this today.  Throw a themed party of any sort today, and it’s expected that the host will have something on hand for those guests who didn’t get the message or simply couldn’t figure it out.  Consider New Year’s Eve, anyone can bring a noisemaker or party hat, but, if the host wants or expects everyone to wear a silly hat and twirl a noisemaker or sound a squeaky horn, he or she will be sure to have enough to go around.

What’s at issue here isn’t what to do with a guest who comes unprepared – Jesus’ audience would have known how ancient custom dealt with that dilemma:  the king would provide what is necessary.  No, the point that Matthew is making is this:  the guests, too, have a responsibility.  It is one thing to accept the invitation, that’s the first step, but not the last.  When you come, you must participate, you must change.

In his book, Not a Silent Night, Adam Hamilton, makes a stark comparison between the way of the world and the way of Jesus, writing:

"The world calls us to self-indulgence, but Jesus calls us to self-denial.  The world calls us to seek our own glory, but Jesus calls us to seek God’s glory.  The world calls us to pursue a greatness involving accolades and recognition, but Jesus redefines greatness and serving others and calls us to serve without any praise.  The world calls us to pursue riches, but Jesus tells us that abundance has nothing to do with possessions.  The world calls us to demand justice, but Jesus calls us to demonstrate mercy."

In a variety of ways, this is the message we have heard these past several weeks:  the king who forgave his servants great debt, the vineyard own who paid everyone what they needed not simply what they deserved, the stone of mercy which the builders rejected will become the chief cornerstone.

You see, the invitation that Jesus extends, the invitation that God extends, is not simply for our entertainment and prosperity; at the heart of it, the invitation is to be transformed for this world today.  To say yes to the invitation, to say yes, to this table behind me, is to say yes to God’s transformation, to say yes, to God’s mercy and sacrificial life.

We can say yes to the invitation, but with that invitation comes an expectation:  that we also accept the new clothes of Christ:  humility and service, generosity and self-sacrifice, forgiveness and mercy.  These are the new robes of God’s kingdom.

Will you wear them?