Sermon – October 15, 2017 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Jesus’ parables are meant to be a little outlandish. The shock-value on this parable, however, is unusually high. First, the initial rejection of the invited guests is a little unbelievable. This is the banquet of a King! Who wouldn’t want to come to a royal wedding? And, if these guest truly just didn’t want to come why would they feel the need to retaliate and kill the king’s slaves? Second, when the King heard that his original guests had rejected the invitation, he decided to destroy the city. The king destroyed his own city, the one that he was tasked with caring for. Then, to up the outrageousness, the king decided to invite all of those people who were not worthy, both good and bad…and they come! And despite all of these twists in plans, the feast remained prepared, ready to go at any minute. But just when you think the story has been resolved, we read that the king became upset because one of the unworthy did not wear the right attire and so the king kicked them out. Was it right for the king to expect that this person from the street had the right attire to begin with?

The shock-value is high on this parable for a reason. It takes us, as hearers, on an emotional and literary roller-coaster ride. The absolute absurdity of this parable serves two functions: 1) To try to explain the outrageousness of God’s radical invitation and 2) to try to convey the outrageousness of the idea that people would come to God’s inclusive feast without the need to change.

I’m going to do something a little bit different and start with the gospel, the absolute good news, in this story. God’s invitation to grace, reconciliation, healing, and fullness of life is extended to everyone. We’re all in, baby! I believe that this is what the author of Matthew was trying to convey to their hearers. These first Christians in Matthew’s community were wrestling with whether or not Jesus’ message was just for Jewish people or if there was something about Jesus’ message that extended beyond early Judaism. The authors answer in how this parable is written is an emphatic YES to all people.

Through Jesus, this new thing that God was doing, there is room for all people— Jews, Greeks, Romans, Gentiles, even us. Furthermore, there is room in God’s embrace not just for the expected but also for those who wear labels of both good and bad. No matter where you find yourself in life, no matter how lost you feel, no matter how rejected, God continues to extend a hand to you. God’s invitation is not based on worthiness, morality, ethics, for past track record, it is pure grace. Christ is the host of this feast, not us, and that is indeed very good news. That final invitation to the banquet is inclusiveness to the extreme which is why when the man dressed in the wrong robes is kicked out, it reads as complete shock, contradictory even.

Another issue that the author of Matthew was trying to address in their community was complacency. Matthew was writing primary to people who already considered themselves Christians, or followers of Jesus. Matthew was writing to the first “Church”[1] and what Matthew witnessed in this early church was upsetting. Matthew’s community was resting, becoming complacent, in their following of Jesus. Matthew did not see the existence of the church as perfect in of itself, but instead saw a great need for continual reform and response. For Matthew, the idea that one could claim to follow Jesus but go about living the same life was outrageous. So, this section of the parable is about much more than proper wedding attire so don’t take it at face value.[2] Instead, think of it this way: If you are invited to the most amazing, abundant feast, you don’t just show up. That would be like showing up to a huge, celebratory party and refusing to dance. The invitation in itself should change you. The power of Jesus message is that this feast is not something that is to be experienced in the future— it’s something that is happening here and now and it’s something to be lived here and now. The good news is that we’re all invited, right? But once we’re at the party something has to change. We can’t go on living like nothing extraordinary has taken place. We were invited to a feast. What this parable seems to suggest is that to not live into this celebration, to not let it change you, is perhaps just as wrong as not accepting the invitation in the first place.

What does it mean to be a Christian? It means much more than just accepting Jesus into your heart. It means much more than just showing up to church once a week. It even means much more than just being kind and good person. Christian is a much better noun than it is an adjective because often in our world the label of Christian doesn’t describe much. Perhaps this is why Christianity, true Christianity, has lost it’s voice in our public sphere— and i’m not talking about a type of Christian Nationalism that is worn like a badge in our political circles. Perhaps the decline in numbers of those who would describe themselves as Christian is because we who actually call ourselves Christian have been way too satisfied with just showing up to worship each week and have rejected the idea that our faith has something to say to our world today and that perhaps we are the mouthpieces to convey such a living, daring faith. Perhaps the church is dying because we have allowed ourselves to accept the invitation to God’s feast but all too quickly started worshiping the status quo instead of Jesus.

Showing up isn’t enough. It’s not enough to call ourselves followers of Jesus but then act as though we’ve forgotten what Jesus actually said. It’s not enough to be proud of our membership in a church but be embarrassed to actually talk about Jesus. It’s not enough to say you are a Christian but then reject the very things that Christ stood for— healing, inclusion, love, grace, forgiveness, and justice.[3]

So, do you really want to be a Christian? Well, in the words of Father Daniel Berrigan, “you better look good on wood.” Meaning that the kind of change in purpose that takes place when we embrace and accept God’s invitation often leads to rejection. If we truly want to follow Jesus we must prepared to be crucified because Jesus’ message is often in stark opposition to the values of the world we live in, our own empire.

First, though, we must remember the good news. That we have all been invited to a feast so extravagant and so abundant that it will not make sense to anybody who has not experienced it for themselves. This is good news, and this is what we come back to everytime this following of Jesus thing seems like too much to handle. Ultimately, though, we still have a choice to make. Will we accept the invitation to God’s big party and just show up? Or will we show up and dance? Will we be the kind of Christians that live into God’s abundance by sharing it, by being the kind of people who work to make our world how God intended it to be—despite rejection and despite great risk. It is my prayer that we, as a church, choose the latter.

 

 

[1] The author of Matthew was the first to use the term Ekklesia or church in the Gospels.

[2] This last section of the parable does not appear in other Gospels leaving one to suggest that it was added especially by the author of Matthew to prove this point.

[3] The preceding paragraph was based, in part, on a piece by Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis entitled “What not to wear”