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Sermon: Come to the Wedding Banquet

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, October 12, 2014.

18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable indicating that the blessings of God’s kingdom are available to all, but the invitation is not to be taken lightly. This is an interesting use of allegory, a story in which people, things, and events are used as metaphors to carry symbolic meaning. First, we see the invitation rejected by many (vv. 1-7); then the invitation is extended to strangers (vv. 8-9); and finally we see that invited persons are expected to be properly considerate (vv. 10-14).

           You might remember that in ancient marriages, a couple would announce their betrothal and then the man would begin to prepare a new place for the bride in his father’s house. When that was complete, then the groom and his family would process to the bride and the feast would begin. It might take months or years. No one knew for sure, but everyone knew it was coming and their presence was expected. So the Save-The-Date magnets were sent out long ago. Now, the day of celebration has come. Yet the expected guests are absent. Those originally invited are off tending to their own things rather than accepting the invitation to attend the banquet.


I cannot come.

           I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.

           I have married a wife; I have bought me a cow.

           I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.

           Pray, hold me excused, I cannot come.

           This represents a serious breach of ancient protocol. To accept the original invitation, to reply with Yes, means you will be present when the time comes; you are expected. Many commentaries says this parable speaks to the chosen elect of Israel first being called into covenant with God, and the judgment against Jewish leaders and Matthew’s community, who as insiders are exposed as false believers. The king’s servants and slaves are reminiscent of the prophets and martyrs of old who have announced the invitation to come to the banquet. Israel knows God is preparing this feast, as do we.

           Both the Exodus and Matthew readings are rich with images of festivals and banquets. We all know the joy of gathering. It often includes celebrating, eating, and drinking. It is a common and essential human form of communicating, of bonding, of re-membering and recollection, of hope and living. That’s why we gather at important times – such as the marriage of two people. A small circle of family and friends are invited. The coming celebration of Thanksgiving may be a good example. The feast is extravagant. All people are invited. No membership cards are required to gain access.              

In today’s Gospel, the author of Matthew merges several biblical images that describe our life with God. The wedding suggest lifelong love, commitment to the other, and communal joy in the union as a description of God’s choosing us and caring for us. Especially in a culture where food was not always plentiful or cheap, the feast represents communal participation and extraordinary abundance and fullness. God is likened to a king, who is due honor and service. We are the guests: that is, the meal is God’s, not ours. The wedding robe suggests the white garment of baptism. Since the Bible often describes God as light, outer darkness suggests life totally distant and apart from God.

           God shares a treasure with all the people. The treasure is life itself, and it is shared with us in celebration – in food and drink, in bread and wine. But the question is also posed: what do we treasure? Some don’t hear the invitation because they are too focused on their own earthly treasures. They turn away. Others, enjoying the feast, ignore what it means and don’t see what is being offered. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Our food, our treasure, is God. This banquet feast continually transforms us anew into people of God in this world and the next.

           When the king sends servants to gather everyone from around the area, we can see that Jesus expects there to be unbelievers in our midst. Jesus’ parable today has some similarities with his parables of Matthew 13. Like the fisherman (Matt 13:47-50) and the householder with weed and wheat growing together (Matt 13:24-30), the king’s servants gather everyone in sight: strangers, foreigners, slaves included. No questions are asked. There is no doctrinal quiz. No one judges whether they are sufficiently schooled in social graces. That sweeping invitation no doubt resulted in there being some odd company at the wedding banquet for the king’s son. Keep odd company, Jesus advises in his parable. It’s not up to us to make judgments about those who answer the gospel invitation to faith.

           But this parable also points out there are those who try to enter the kingdom of God on their own terms and conditions. They want to write their own rule book. Witness the man who enters, but doesn’t put on the wedding garment, which might be a way of saying he hadn’t come prepared to be fully part of the celebration, accepting the king’s generosity. But life doesn't work that way, not in the world and not in the kingdom of God. No matter how hard you try, no matter what you think, you can't bend reality to your own wishes. Not all who find themselves guests at God’s restoration banquet actually belong there; we must recognize where we are and why.      

          In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession ... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

           Some might seek the safe, soft side of discipleship. They may try to shy away from the difficult work of outreach and social justice. But God has, and will exercise, the authority to “bench” those who refuse to answer God’s invitation to service. God's generosity is free for all, but it doesn't come cheap! Grace asks everything of us. God’s grace does not cancel the reality of judgment.

           In Baptism, we are clothed in Christ Jesus. But sometimes we are the schlub. One time when I was visiting my parents from college, I scoffed at going to church, saying I hadn’t brought a good change of clothes for Sunday and wanted to avoid embarrassing my parents. My father quickly said, “God doesn’t care what you wear; God just cares that you are there!”

           But at other times, we are dressed all wrong! The one who is underdressed for this wedding banquet could not have expected to be invited. Attending in my everyday clothes was fine, when my intention is to worship and praise my Creator! Yet the king’s servants may have offered more suitable clothes that he rejected. Maybe he tried to act as though he was the king! Whatever he did, he insulted the king. There is something about this unrobed person not showing the fruits of living as a guest to the banquet of grace. And yet, gospel living begins with the invitation.       

Returning to Bonhoeffer, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs [us our] life, and it is grace because it gives [us] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”                
           God rejects those who try to enter the Kingdom without truly accepting the will of the King. They are cast into outer darkness, the state of the lost that have turned their backs on God. But all are invited to put on a life in Christ. We can all enjoy salvation. Not by our own merit, but by God’s mercy is it that we are saved. What garment of faith do you currently wear, and what others might you add to your wardrobe? Compassion? Kindness? Humility? Meekness? Patience? Forgiveness?

           In Jesus’ parable about a great banquet, those invited do not come, so the invitation is extended to others. In our liturgy God spreads a table before us. Even amid anxiety and hardship we rejoice in the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. With great joy we feast at the table of the Lord, and we go forth to share the wonderful invitation with others hungering and thirsting for the abundant love and life of God.

           So, now, as the King’s servant, I invite you all. Come.

           In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.