Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sermon for the twentienth Sunday after Trinity

Trinity 20
                                                                                                            Mt 22:1-14

            Dating, as my dad used to remind me, is not like hitting in baseball.  In baseball, if you step up to the plate at the end of the day and are 1 for 4, then that at bat is going to decide whether you have had a good day or a bad day.  If you walk, you are 1 for 4 and your batting average goes down.  If you make an out, you are 1 for 5 and it really goes down.  But if you get a hit, then you are 2 for 5, and anytime you hit .400 it’s a good day.
            In dating, on the other hand, you only have to go 1 for something.  It doesn’t matter how many people don’t work out.  You just have to meet that one person who is “the one” – that one person that knocks it out of the park.  And that basic truth guided my dating.  If there was a possibility that was interesting or promising, I was going see what to see what happened.  That’s why on Dec. 31, 1995 I went out on a blind date with a girl form Danville, IL – someone a fellow seminarian said was great.  It turned out that she was great … and that to this day she is “the one.”
            Of course, before I met Amy there were more than few trips to the plate in the dating world that didn’t work out.  When I was in college my best friend Dan O’Connor and I were both from southern Indiana and so I would ride up with him to Concordia, Ann Arbor.  On one fall break trip as we returned to school we stopped in Ft. Wayne to see his long-time friend Katie … and I found myself very interested.  She attended a school on the east coast and was about to study for a semester at Oxford University in England – but I decided I wasn’t going to let that stop me from pursuing things.  After all my grandparents lived in Ft. Wayne, so going there whenever Katie was in town wasn’t a problem.
            I made a couple of trips up to Ft. Wayne during the summer of 1991 in order to spend the day with Katie. And though in the end she decided – probably sensibly given the circumstances – that it wasn’t something that would continue into the school year, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. 
            One experience in dating her was quite memorable.  We had purchased sandwiches and gone to a lovely park that was filled with flowers – quite the romantic setting for a picnic.  Engaged in animated conversation as we sat on a bench, we had not noticed that people were beginning to gather near us.  Before we knew it, a wedding party had assembled and a wedding was just about to start.  Situated as we were, we soon realized that there was no unobtrusive way for us to get up and leave with our sandwiches.  So we just sat there and watched the wedding – uninvited guests enjoying a meal.  It made for a good laugh after the fact.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning we hear about the opposite situation.  Guests have been invited to a royal wedding feast.  They know the wedding will be taking place. They have accepted the invitation and indicated they will be coming.  However, when the actual wedding feast occurs they refuse to come.  The consequences of their rejection are drastic.  Yet even more surprising is what happens at the end of the parable to a person who had not originally been invited.
            Our Gospel lesson this morning narrates a parable that Jesus told during Holy Week as he was sparring with the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  All of their opposition to Jesus was reaching a crescendo as they sought to trip him up with questions and plotted how to kill him.
            In the course of this time, Jesus tells three parables that all are about the same basic theme.  In this third parable, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.”
            Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – to a king giving a wedding feast for his son.  When the feast was ready, he sent out his servants to tell those who had been invited that it was time to come and enjoy the feast.  However, those who had been invited didn’t wish to come, and the form of the Greek verb used here indicates that they were persistent in their refusal – something that rest of the parable makes clear.
            Now from our perspective, we may wonder why this was such a big deal.  Sure, it’s the king who is giving the wedding feast, but can’t the people decide not to go?  The point to recognize here is that the people in the parable had already accepted the invitation.  In the first century world an invitation for an event went out.  If a person indicated that he or she would be coming, the host then sent out servants to call them to come to the feast when it was ready.  Remember … there were no clocks or watches.  A person couldn’t say, “Dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m.”  Instead, the feast would be prepared and when it was ready the host would send out messengers to inform the guests that it was time to come to the feast.
            The guests provide an affront to the host when they turn around and now refuse to come. This becomes all the more significant when we consider that it is the king who is giving a wedding feast for his son.  It was an insult.  And yet, the king was incredibly patient.  Jesus goes on to say in the parable, “Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’”
            The king sent out servants again with a message that invited the people to reconsider and to come to what was obviously going to be a huge bash.  Bear in mind that meat like this was a rarity in the diet of first century Palestine.  The word “dinner” suggests that it would be a tremendous affair and the king was doing everything he could to get the people to come and take part in this joyous occasion.
            However, the people paid no attention to his message.  Some went off to their farm or business.  However, others reacted in a shocking way.  They seized the king’s servants, treated them shamefully, and then killed them.
            For the king, this was the last straw.  He sent his army to their city, killed the people and burned it down.  He wiped them out.  But then he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.”  The king did the unexpected. He sent his servants out to the places where the road exits the city and had them invite all the people they found.  The people on the original invite list had been the elite of society.  Yet now the king had the servants bring in everyone including the most common and lowly. The servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. And so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Because of the two previous parables, everything is quite straightforward and expected – well except the detail about the king killing everyone and torching the city – that’s an extravagant detail that is meant to catch your attention. Jesus’ parables often contain unrealistic features such as this for that very reason.
Jesus is talking about the people of Israel and her leaders.  God had entered into a covenant with them.  They were the ones who were already invited to the feast of salvation – the wedding feast for the bridegroom the Son of God.  As God’s covenant people they had accepted the invitation.  And yet now, at the very moment when the reign of God was present in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, they were rejecting him. They were rejecting him, just as throughout their history they had rejected the prophets God sent to them; just as had happened recently to John the Baptist.
They were rejecting God’s Son. And so God would reject them.  He would send his judgment against the nation and Jerusalem as in 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed the city and burned it.  However, this was not the end of the invitations. Instead, he has extended the invitation to others – to you.  God has extended the invitation to the Gentiles and to all repentant sinners. He has invited those that others considered to be good and those that some considered to be bad.  He has welcomed them all to the reign of God – the salvation that is present through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is good news for us.  It is good news for people who have no right to be at the feast because of who we are and what we do.  The vast majority of us are Gentiles – not Jews.  When Jesus spoke these words our ancestors were worshipping false gods on the steppes of Eurasia.  And then beyond that, we are “the bad” because we think, say and do bad things.  We sin in thought, word and deed and so have no business being in fellowship with the holy God. And yet … because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have received forgiveness.  Through baptism we have been united with Jesus, the seed of Abraham, and so we are the heirs according to the promise.
This is good news – great news. But you will also notice that we have not arrived yet at the end of the parable.  For Jesus went on to say: “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Wow!  What are we to make of this?  The parable has indicated God has brought together people from all backgrounds to enjoy the salvation of his reign.  Yet now the king finds someone not wearing the proper attire – a wedding garment.  When the king confronts the man about it he is silent – an indication that the man knows he is guilty.  And so the king has his attendants – note a different word from the servants he sent out earlier – bind the man and throw him into the outer darkness.  In other words, God will have his angels remove some from the salvation of God’s reign.
The end of the parable is a reminder that we always need to hear.  It is a reminder that while we are saved by grace, there is no room for cheap grace.  It is a reminder that while we are saved by faith alone, faith is never alone. Instead, faith acts in ways that show forth Jesus. 
The garment in Christian literature is a symbol of godly living – of a life lived in accordance with God’s will. The absence of the wedding garment indicates that while the man seems to have received the reign of God, his life denies this.  The casting out of the man warns us that there is no such thing as “once saved, always saved.” Faith can be lost. Salvation can be lost where there is no interest in living the faith.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about those who are blessed because they have received the reign of God. They have received salvation.  And then he goes on to describe what this means for life as he says: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus’ words remind us that we need to be the people he has called us to be; the people that he has made us to be. Seeking to live according to God’s will – letting our light shine – is part of the life of faith wherever faith is present.  St. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Ephesians, I “urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Will we do this perfectly? No. We live in repentance through faith in Christ, and so live as the forgiven people of God.  Yet to have an attitude of repentance is to recognize what is important – even at those times when we fail. It is to be aware that we are called to let our light shine – and to seek to do just that as people who have received the saving reign of God in Christ Jesus.


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