Monday, October 13, 2008

The Proper of the Day: Penteccost XXII

Yesterday was a long day, but good too. We gathered to encounter the Word in word and Sacrament - and this week the Gospel has got some of Metthew's "hard words" to deal with. See what you think. As always, I welcome your feedback!

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 23A RCL 2008
Ex 32:1-14; Ps 106:1-6, 19-23; Phil 4:1-9; Matt 22:1-14
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May the words of my mouth, and meditation of all our hearts, be always acceptable in your site, O Lord our Redeemer, Amen.

When I was on vacation two weeks ago I visited my parents in Toledo. It was a good visit, except for the driving part! During part of my time there I had the opportunity to look through some of the family pictures from years past. It was very nostalgic in lots of ways to see pictures of me and my brother and parents during the holidays and stuff. Chad is twelve years younger than I am, and it was fascinating to see some of his baby pix in my minds eye when I had lunch with him later in the week! But what really has stuck in my mind are some pictures of weddings we went to when I was growing up. There was one with my uncle Denny – I was in the wedding party and we had to wear what we would now think are truly atrocious ruffles and a top hat with a walking stick. I think I was ten or so. There was another one with my cousin Celia – I vaguely remember that one. She was older too and so I might have been 12. There was my other cousin Kevin’s wedding too – it was bitterly cold and wasn’t even that fun, as far as I could recall. The truly oddest one, in a way, was the wedding of my own parents! It was a fall wedding, in October, and the wedding colors were exactly the colors of the leaves right now. I was also in that wedding party, too, and no, it’s not what you might be thinking! This was my father’s second marriage and I was five. I don’t remember too many details because I sort of didn’t quite understand what was going on until later. And thinking back on it, it was kind of a surreal experience, going to your own parents’ wedding.

Some of the details of the wedding we heard about in today’s passage from Matthew are pretty surreal, too. The parable starts normally enough. There’s a king, and his son is getting married, and invitations to the feast get sent out. Now in those days it was customary to get rsvp’s back, plan the banquet, and then send out a reminder closer to the day of the wedding. If you’re a king, you don’t need mail or email, you have your slaves go out. But for whatever reason, the invited guests blow the king off. They apparently have other stuff to do that’s more important. That’s the first odd detail. Remember that, like at the wedding at Cana, that weddings, especially royal ones, lasted several days and the parties were umbelievable. So the king got everything ready for the big multi-day dinner, and sent some more slaves, and, like in the parable of the vineyard, some of these get mistreated or even killed. That’s where it starts to get even more unreal. You don’t go around mistreating the king’s own slaves, after all! That’s sort of like beating up the mailmen. But then it gets even more strange, and rather bloody besides. While dinner is apparently more or less on the table, the king sent his soldiers to kill the guests and burn their city. Probably, this verse refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 and might be a later addition into the story. It’s hard to tell, though, and in any case the point is that the king is not a happy camper. So he’s got all this food and wine, maybe a nice orchestra, all camped out for a week or more, and he tells his slaves to literally go pull people off the street to come to the feast. And as Matthew notes, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Can you imagine having a week-long wedding reception at say, the Highland Lakes Clubhouse and just asking anyone to come in?

And here’s the next bizarre part of the story. The king comes in and sees one of the guests without a suit on. He asks him about it, and the guest has nothing to say. Now remember that this guy got his invitation, at the earliest, the same day. I can picture our guest going out for a donut, unshaven, wearing some old 501s, favorite rock band t-shirt, and maybe some flip flops, when all of a sudden a bus pulls up on a street corner and the driver says, “Come on, get in, there’s a great party over at the palace and the kings is having everyone in!” In jumps our guest in whatever he has on, and off he goes right to the great hall. But the king has him bounced out of the feast anyway, just like at a club in Midtown Manhattan or someplace. I’m reminded of my cousin Kevin’s wedding, where it was nice and warm inside the reception and below zero and snowy outside. “Many are called, by few are chosen,” are the concluding words of this parable.

This is, once again, an example of one of Matthew’s hard sayings. There are more coming up before all is said and done. Sometimes it’s easy to see the Good News in a particular parable or other passage from the Gospels. Other times it isn’t, and this seems like one of those. What’s going on here?

The first thing to note is that Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees and the scribes, his sworn enemies. This is the third parable he tells them, all after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, so this might be only two or three days before the last Supper and the Crucifixion. Just like last week’s parable of the tenants in the vineyard and the story of the two sons the week before, the major point of this story is of an allegory of salvation history. The wedding banquet is the end time – after space and time has ended, when all are brought into judgment, and those judged worthy get to sit down to the banquet. God is the king, Jesus is the son, the slaves are not only prophets from the Old Testament times but also Christian missionaries later on, and the first round of invitees are the scribes and Pharisees themselves. Well, they don’t seem to be accepting the Good News of God’s love, and so other people – you and me, the guests pulled in off the street, are invited to the wedding instead. So far so good. But who is the guest caught in t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops? What’s that supposed to represent?

Well, here’s where it’s both Good News and also hard news. The wedding garment the guest is lacking can be thought of as putting on the new clothes of salvation - you have to take off your old clothes if you want to put on new ones. It was the earliest practice of Christianty that people took off their old clothes, were baptized naked, and then put on a white baptismal robe to signify their new life in Christ. It may be that this practice has an echo in this parable. But the new clothes of salvation, for Matthew, are not merely the acceptance of the invitation. That’s where “many are called” comes in. Everyone, absolutely everyone, rich or poor, gay or straight, Republican, Democrat, Independent, white, black, men, women, are invited to God’s great celebration of new and renewed life. And that’s the Good News! God constantly calls to you and to me and says, “Hey, come to my dinner – I have all sorts of good things for you!" That’s what Jesus did – he issued a standing invitation to come to God’s wedding hall and dig in. And at the wedding each of us is given a white wedding garment to wear. Think of that as both baptism itself and more importantly, the baptismal covenant we renew several times a year. We’re given the garment and we’re expected to wear it. We don’t have to, it’s always our choice. But putting it on means taking off our old clothes first, the old clothes of not respecting the dignity of every human being, of not continuing in the apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread, of not seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and the other things we sign up for that we say we agree with and that we will do. Matthew is very concerned that the grace of salvation gets acted on, and the little vignette about the wedding guest with crummy clothes is nothing less than a representation of one who just shows up and expects to be saved, without any expectation of doing anything else. Just because we get an invitation doesn’t mean we can show up in any old thing we want to wear. Just because we know we are saved, that we are in right relation with God, doesn’t mean we can just sit back at the banquet and chow down.

The wedding garment here is nothing less than the good works that we prayed for earlier this morning. “We pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.” Notice that grace comes first. That’s so important! We are given the gift of salvation and it actually surrounds us and permeates us. Our good works don’t earn us grace, our good works are in response to grace. Our prayer is that this grace will inspire in each of us ways to show that God’s love is active right now, by extending God’s love out from each of us into the world we live in. And what’s completely wonderful is that we have a prequel of the wedding banquet that we’re invited to, every time we gather here in this place. Our Eucharist is nothing less than a preview, an appetizer, if you will, of that same wedding feast Jesus told us about in this parable. And like all food and drink, this holy meal nourishes us and strengthens us. “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.” Strength and renewal go along with getting a wedding garment, and it’s what we need to do those good works we just prayed that we want to, in fact, do.

And what is that? As I mentioned earlier, putting on the wedding garment means accepting what we signed up for when we were baptized or when we are confirmed. It’s a set of values that are at times completely antithetical to the values of the world around us. It’s seeing a need, here in St. Thomas’ or in the community, on in someone you know, or perhaps people you may never meet, and helping out in whatever ways you can to live out salvation right in your life. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about wearing the wedding garment. Each of us is given one, and we have to put it on – we’re asked to live out our wedding invitation. Each of us has different gifts that God us to do this – it’s part of the grace that precedes and follows us, because gifts, like grace itself, are unearned. Perhaps you have a special ability that know is useful and needed by the community. Perhaps you have the gift of time that you are offering for the ongoing ministries of St. Thomas’s or in the township. Perhaps you have a good income that you are contributing to the material fabric of the parish and support of the ministries. For most of us, it’s some combination of time, talent and treasure that at various times in our lives we can bring. Whatever it is, it’s valuable. And I want to thank and acknowledge whatever it is you are offering now. All of it is helping to build up this community of St. Thomas’s and is needed and helpful. In God’s eyes, there are no unworthy contributions at all. Everyone is invited to the Feast, and everyone’s offerings are valued and valuable too. That’s the flip side of the Good News. With great privilege - the good news that we are made right with God and each other, in Jesus - comes great responsibility, that we actually have to act like it.

I still remember how odd it was to stand there next to my Dad and his girlfriend in my own little tux. Going to your own parents’ wedding as a five year old is definitely a bit surreal, at least if you’re five. I often am mindful of that event in my life when I read about the surreal wedding of the king. The invitations, the over-the-top destruction of the city and then the weird treatment of the wedding guest. But the strangeness is the point. I wore a tuxedo back when I was five. Each of us is also invited to an ongoing wedding, and that feast starts right here. But if we go, we’re expected to get dressed up first. That starts here too. How can each of us daily live out the invitation we have been given, inviting others to the very same feast that we already have a standing invitation to?


Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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