Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 11, 2020
Year A, Proper 23: Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Exodus 32:1-14, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
We often talk a lot about the differences in context and culture between first-century Palestine and 21st- – century America. There were different expectations around marriage back then, but some of the trappings were very much the same. Marriages then, as most often now, were feasts, times of great celebration.
Think of some of the weddings you have attended. There have been small, intimate affairs and others may be lavish banquets. I’ve attended all kinds of weddings over the years.
I remember one in particular. It was just about ten years ago. It was held in the backyard of the bride’s mother. Much care had been taken to spruce up the lawn. There was a tent, new sod so it felt like the guests were walking on a lush green carpet. It was a magnificent backdrop to the various shades of pale pink flowers on the vintage china the bride’s mother had scoured various thrift stores to locate. As Marty and I sat down we couldn’t help notice that there were more than a few empty chairs at the table and we wondered who was missing.
We learned that some people simply did not RSVP as requested. A place was set for them, but they did not respond to the invitation. Yet, a place was set for them anyway, just in case they came.
What a contrast to the way the king handled the missing wedding guests in today’s parable. There the king prepared a wedding feast, sent his slaves to call out the guests who had been invited, but no one came. Then he sent out other slaves to call his guests, but still none came.
The king was enraged. He had gone to great lengths to prepare a banquet. He had slaughtered oxen and fatted calves, but no one was there to share the feast and celebrate. So, the king sent even more slaves out to invite anyone they could find to come to the feast. The king didn’t cancel the wedding celebration. Instead, the king invited everyone. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, whoever was found and was willing to come was welcomed to the feast.
In first-century Palestine there were clear, implicit expectations of a wedding feast. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today. The cultural and social expectation would be for you to come.
And not unlike many of our relatives of a hundred years ago, you two or three, maybe four, sets of clothes for work (or play) and clothes for dress up, including Sunday church. If you lived in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment. Everyone just sort of understand what the expectation were with regard to the wedding garment.
So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.
There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.
If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.
Yet, that’s not what our Philadelphia friends did. They were gracious and generous, setting a place at the table for folks in the chance they might come.
Isn’t that just like God? Here we have a parable, proclaiming in this case, a story of the way God acts in the world.
God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.
And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although God could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.
Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to a feast where God will wipe away the tears from all faces. You, me, and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.
When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.
When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as a week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.
What is becoming clear to me of the parables we have heard over the last weeks is that Jesus offers us a new way of seeing things – a way to navigate the journey of life and love. Jesus reminds us that clarity in this life comes through God’s mercy and grace.
As Christians, our clarity comes in our regular encounters with the risen Christ – in scripture and sacrament and prayer. Our encounters with the Lord are invitations, like the invitation to the wedding feast, to be in relationship with God every day. We are called to live authentically into that relationship. We are called to be prepared to be in that relationship. That’s what the ending of the parable is about. It isn’t about not having the right clothes, it’s about being prepared for God. Remember that these are written at a time when Christ’s followers believed his return was imminent.
I invite you to remember that even in our pandemic-driven time and space, God is with us – present in the changes and chances of our lives. Present in the outer darkness Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. Present when we are driven to weeping and gnashing our teeth. God is present, patiently offering forgiveness, comfort, and the peace that passes all understanding – the peace that guards our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus.
And remember that in our encounters with Christ, the more we take on the garment of Christ, the more we need to learn. But when we come to Christ prepared, willing to listen and to learn, we can be changed and challenged. Amen.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.