Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Yr A, Proper 23, Oct 11 2020
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
In the gospel of Matthew we have been reading the stories of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem, and Jesus working incredibly hard to teach the disciples everything that he thinks is essential for them to know when he is gone. Jesus seems to be tired and impatient as he finishes this task of imparting knowledge in the form of parables. And, the parables we have been hearing from Matthew have been terribly troublesome.
In this parable, as with the one we preached last week, we are catching a glimpse of the low point in an intense family feud. I want to emphasize the word “family” here because Matthew and his community are caught up in a struggle with their Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and, in particular, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. This is not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous) – but rather it represents the pain of a community sundered from its family and trying to figure itself out.
So, maybe this parable really asks the question, what happens when people we love, our brothers and sisters, our friends and family, believe differently than we do, or disagree with us, or do not believe at all? We all come from families or friendship groups just like this, and especially right now, in these days, we have much disagreement.
What does the kingdom of God look like in this case? Matthew answers this intra-family dispute by telling a story about a king who resolves this difficult matter in a very dark and violent way. We have seen in our own culture, and in the diverse cultures and religions of the 21st century, we have seen the same kind of violence in disagreement. If you believe differently than we do, we have every right to capture you and kill you, which is the extreme, a bit less extreme but as violent, is that we have the right to condemn you and hate you.
For those who follow Jesus, that is not the answer. The answer is that in the kingdom of God there is love enough for all of the characters in this story.
Weddings these days are fascinating. In the last few years I have attended weddings as a family member, as mother of the groom, and I have been the presider at a few. Weddings are varied, they can be in the church, at the lake or in the park. And, we've witnessed amazingly varied wedding wear on the diverse people that have been gathered for these weddings. The most interesting wedding wear was at the wedding of my nephew the actor who lived in New York, there were many New Yorkers there, young like him, 30ish, very well tattooed and pierced. The wedding attire ran the gamut from amazingly dressy to jeans and t-shirts, there didn’t seem to be any expectation of any particular appropriate dress.
And in my life, an invitation to a party is an exciting thing. Part of the fun of a party is the expectation, the anticipation. Part of the fun of a party is being included, belonging.
Unlike the response of the people in our story from Matthew today, who made light of the invitation, and even killed the messengers who delivered the invitation.
The king may have shrugged and said, well then, if the chosen are not interested in the wedding celebration, then go and invite any one you want, they went to the outer reaches of the kingdom, they went to the margins, and those who eventually came to the celebration were honored to be there. The God of abundance has made a great offer, come to the feast. The God of abundance has set the table and has prepared a wonderful banquet.
The thing about an invitation is that we can choose to come, or not. The thing about this relationship with God is that we can choose to be in it or not, we are never compelled. As all these people arrived, people from all over the kingdom, people who were honored to be there; the ones who were tattooed and pierced, the ones who were curious and doubtful, the ones who were questionable and the ones who were upstanding, the ones who loved and hated, but all people who respected the king and the occasion for which they gathered, these people received a wedding garment, a robe. The people gathered for this wedding banquet mostly were the people gathered from the margins, they were the people who responded yes to the great offer made to them. The wedding garment was provided for them, and they put on the wedding garment with honor and respect to the King.
Except the one in our story. He won’t put on the wedding garment. Not putting on the wedding garment is the very same thing as saying no to this relationship into which he was being invited. So in this case, the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, is of his own choosing. Putting on the wedding garment, putting on the robe, reveals a willingness to respond to the abundant banquet that is available to us now, and available to us at the fulfillment of time. When I reread this story, I was reminded of the garment each of us puts on at baptism, figuratively and literally. The baptismal garment re-presents to us that new creation we become when Jesus calls us over the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice sounds, saying “Christian, follow me.” We are dressed as one ready, ready to follow, ready to be a voice in the cacophony, ready to dive into the relationship that is offered to us by the one who prepares the banquet of abundance, the one whose heart's desire is to be in relationship with us.
When we put on the wedding garment, or the baptismal garment, it does not signify that we are finished, that we have arrived, or that we are perfected or done, because we are only beginning. We are saying yes to the abundant and amazing love that waits for us. We are saying yes to the journey of life and yes to the knowledge that the journey is not by ourselves, but with the one who creates us, the one who reconciles us, the one who revives us. Life is not a journey that should be taken by oneself; it is a hard and treacherous journey, as well as a joyful and exciting journey. It is a journey of love and forgiveness; it is a journey of grace and mercy. And it is a journey that our creator God desperately wants to accompany us on.
So much so, that God came into this time and space, to be just like you, just like me, with all the joys and hopes, all the pain and the suffering, that human life has to offer. And so much love, that Jesus was willing to put himself in our place, to offer himself to suffering and death, so that you and I are not condemned to pain and sadness and tragedy for ever. This abundant banquet is there for the taking. Nothing is held over our heads, no strings attached. The love that provides the banquet flows in and through and among us, and we have the opportunity to respond. We have the opportunity to pay that love forward. We have the opportunity to show forth the love that has been offered to us, and to be people of love and forgiveness ourselves. The response to this abundance that God offers to us through God’s son Jesus, is to offer that same love and forgiveness to others. It is not to hoard; it is not to keep to ourselves. It is to offer ourselves, as Jesus offers his life to us, we offer this love to others.
The hard part is that Jesus offers this love to everyone, sinners included. Thank God for that, because that means you and I have a place in this amazing kingdom too. But that was the sticking point for the gospel writer Matthew when Matthew first heard this story and then interpreted it in his own way. And equally exciting is the abundant banquet that is in store for us at the fulfillment of time. We get a foretaste of that banquet in the bread and the wine that we share together. We get glimpses of grace, and those glimpses are powerful.
So one of those glimpses of grace is that everyone is included. You and I are included, the liar and the cheat are included, the tax collector and the sinner are included. I think what is hard for us is that we come to believe that abundance is the reward for right behavior, so that those whose behavior is not up to a particular standard can’t be part of the banquet. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the invitation that changes us. It’s the abundance that transforms us. It’s the anticipation and the expectation of seeing our friends and our loved ones that causes us great joy.
Once we put on that wedding garment, or that baptismal garment, we are not the same. We are made new, God’s love, God’s power, God’s abundance changes us. We can love others; we can forgive others. We no longer live for ourselves, or for greed, or for power. We move toward compassion, mercy, justice, kindness, and the kingdom of God comes near.
Thanks be to God.