Come to the Banquet

The Wedding Feast:  a sermon preached at Holy Comforter Church, Richmond, Virginia, by Christopher L. Webber on October 12, 2014.

When my wife and I lived in Japan, we learned about a significant difference  between Eastern and Western customs  when it comes to responding to an invitation. In Japan it is considered impolite  to reject an invitation. The polite thing to do is  accept the invitation and say you will be delighted to come  even if you have no intention to do so. Of course, that creates really big problems, as you can imagine, because you never know who will come to your party  or if anyone will come.
wedding feast
Now, the king in today’s gospel was not Japanese, nor were his guests.  They didn’t want to come and they said so. They had higher priorities.  They had other things to do.  They responded the way Americans would respond. They made excuses.  But the funny thing is that when it comes to relationships with God, Americans are rather Oriental. When it comes to responding  to God’s gracious invitation to come into a living relationship  that can turn death into life we almost always say “Yes.  Yes, of course,  of course I’ll be baptized  and call myself a Christian for statistical purposes,  I will fill in “Christian” on the census form; all that. Yes, of course, I’ll come.”  And that’s very Japanese  because many of us have no intention  really to make good on that commitment.  When push comes to shove,  when it comes to putting on our wedding garments and keeping our commitment, we seem all too often to have excuses.

It’s not that it’s all that difficult to come. God stands ready to provide any help we need.  God says, “I’m glad you said ‘Yes’ but you may find out it isn’t always easy. There may be times when you will need extra strength, sometimes just to get through the day,  certainly to get through the week.  But I’ll be there for you.  So come, come week by week,  come day by day;  let me give you the gifts you need  to strengthen and guide you. Let me feed you with sacraments.  Let me guide you with the Bible.  Let me be there for you whenever you turn to me in prayer.”  And then what happens? Well, then, I think, we’re more American, we have more in common with the guests who made light of it and went their way “Got to check on my business, got other things to do right now;  maybe I can drop by later.  How about Easter? I’d like to come more often  but right now it looks like rain.  Right now I’ve got weekend guests. I’d love to but I’m just so busy. I’d love to but I’m just so tired.”

Can you explain it?  I can’t.  The Creator of the Universe gives us life and then offers us the strength and guidance  we need to live that life and, indeed, to live forever,  and we treat it like one more optional extra. I’ve been trying to think of anything else like it: What other gatherings are we part of:  a PTA meeting, the NRA, the Sierra Club,  the Annual Parish Meeting?  You know the world will continue to turn  whether we go to those or not. So fine. But this is not like that.  This is God speaking; this is the promise of life renewed.  Why would we not be there?

Well, let me guess. Is it because we really do think  this is just one more meeting?  Have we never really understood what this invitation means? Is it because we have all our problems solved already and don’t need any help?  Really?  Wow!  That’s impressive! Or is it because we really don’t understand who God is and who we are? God invites us,  invites us to come to the banquet,  the wedding feast,  the uniting of ourselves  and our God in the sharing of a common life. What valid excuse can we imagine  for not making our response our first priority?

This parable has, I think you could say, three “movements,” like a concerto. The first movement is the invitation and rejection. The second movement takes the same theme and looks at it in a different way. The invited guests didn’t come but the king will still have the feast  and if the invited guests are elsewhere then there will be others invited.  The party will still go on. The experts sometimes suggest that this second movement  was actually added by Matthew himself  as a later reflection on Jesus’ parable. Matthew may have said to himself, “Jesus was right; the intended guests didn’t come. But look at what happened instead.  There are congregations everywhere  and the members aren’t the elite at all, they’re the odds and ends of society,  riffraff, a really odd collection;  but maybe that’s what Jesus  really wanted in the first place.” Certainly this is where we come in.

There have been times, I guess there are places still, where the church is the elite,  more like the king’s original list of guests. When I served in Bronxville, New York, the other church in town had the A-list. If you moved to Bronxville,  someone would be certain to invite you  to the other church  and you would be told it was the place to go to meet the right people.  So the Episcopal Church  was the place  where you could meet the wrong people.  We used a part of one building for a community residence for the retarded  and some of them came to church and they didn’t dress well –  one was decidedly scruffy – but it’s not up to us to winnow Jesus’ guest list.  If that’s who he wants, it’s up to us to accommodate.  In fact, if we are really Jesus’ servants,  then, like the servants in the parable  it’s our job to go out into the highways  and invite everyone we find,  yes, and make them welcome. That other church in Bronxville when I was there required its ushers to wear morning coats. Talk about wedding garments! That sends a message right up front.  The Episcopal Church, after I left, began a service Sunday evening  called the CAYA service – C-A-Y-A – “Come as you are.”  And that sends a message too.

Now, you might want to ask, “How does that fit with the parable. Weren’t wedding garments still being required  and the poor man without one thrown out?  Please hold that question for later.  Let’s look first at where we are.

The Episcopal Church has always, I think, prided itself on being inclusive. We are, after all, descended from the Church of England,  a national church for everyone, not a sectarian church for those with certain beliefs and I think part of the trouble we’re in these days is a result.  People have taken us seriously and all kinds of people have come  and some people aren’t comfortable with the result.  What about standards? What about a litmus test?  If we can’t keep anyone out,  how can I be proud of being a member?  For some people that’s important: they want to be able to brag about the quality of our membership.  “Come with us: you’ll meet all the right people.” But the king in the parable  doesn’t seem to have cared about that.  Maybe God doesn’t either.  Maybe we shouldn’t.

You see articles occasionally about churches  that set various kinds of standards. One won’t ordain homosexuals.  Another used to bar black candidates.  Most of us remember a time, in  fact,  when the Episcopal Church  wouldn’t ordain women. “It’s just about the priesthood,” these churches say,  they can still be members.” Maybe so, but it still sends a message. We’ve sometimes heard the phrase in politics about a party that “looks like America”  or a presidential cabinet that “looks like America.” As Christians, we ought to be concerned to create a church and a congregation  that looks like Jesus  or at least looks like the people Jesus hung out with: tax collectors, publicans, sinners.  We ought to try to build an inclusive church  because you get the impression from the Bible  that that’s what Jesus was up to, that’s what the apostles were up to.

St.  Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”(I Corinthians 1:25-29)  My way of putting it has usually been, “We ought to be a congregation  more varied than the community we’re in.  Let the Elks and Masons and even the Fire Department and PTA  represent the elite of the community if they want to or even the whole community, but let the church represent something far bigger and more inclusive.  Let us invite to the feast all we can find.”  I think that’s the message of Part II of the parable.

But then there’s the Third Movement,  and it seems somehow not to fit with the rest. Did you put that question on hold? The one about the poor man without a wedding garment?  What about him? It’s time to deal with it.  The king has sent this general invitation:  “Y’all come.”  And when this poor man does, he gets thrown out for not being properly dressed, no wedding garment.

Some say that wedding garments  were provided in those days  so he really had no excuse.  Well, we don’t know that for sure,  but what we do know is  that for us they are.  I think the first Christians would have understood because when they were baptized  they were then clothed in a white robe to symbolize the new life  they had been given.  And Paul wrote to some of his converts  urging them to “put on Christ.”(Romans 13:14)  Because, you see, that’s what happens  when we are baptized.  We “put on Christ”  because, in fact, we can’t come into God’s presence “as we are.”  No saint is pure enough or holy enough to come as we are. The only way we have of coming into God’s presence is in Christ, as members of his body.  We have to “put on Christ;” that’s the wedding garment that matters.  Morning coats won’t help and you can’t really “come as you are” either.

That was the problem with the odd man out.  Here’s this poor man who, you might imagine,  had worked hard at being a Christian all his life: served on the Vestry, tithed his income, been in church every Sunday,  sent a special check to the  hurricane relief fund, done it all, respected by the whole community,  and said to himself, “I’ve earned my way in; I can come as I am.”  But no.  You can’t earn it.  It doesn’t work that way.  Only in Christ. Only in Christ. No other way.

There’s an old communion hymn that says: “Look, Father, look on his anointed face And only look on us as found in him . . .”  And how does that happen? It begins at the font  where we were born again in Christ, where we were given a new identity,  where we became no longer plain old Bill Jones or Mary Smith  but Bill Jones Christian, Mary Smith in Christ. We put on that new identity. And then that new identity is renewed and strengthened  week by week at the altar.  The body and blood of Christ implanted in us  is nourished in us:  his body, not ours;  his blood, not ours; constant transfusions  of a new life, a new identity,  so now when we get to the final feast the king will look around and see a sea of faces  red and black and brown and white,  blonde and brunette,  infinite variety but all somehow looking the same, each one looking very much  like the king’s own child,  and all entitled to be there by that identity and no other.

So this is quite a parable. It gives you an agenda an agenda in terms of your mission to this community and beyond this community:  bring in all who will come, let the wedding hall be filled with guests.  And it gives each of us a personal agenda as well: how do I see myself? How does God see me?  what do I need to do to build up this new identity for myself?  Because we have a critical question to answer: When God looks at me, who does God see?


P.S.   Someone asked me after this sermon, “Well, what about Jews and Muslims?”  Good question, but the answer is a sermon for another day!  The church has (almost!) always taught that God deals separately with the unavoidably ignorant: those who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or for reasons beyond their control were unable to receive it.  Plato and Socrates, for example, never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel so they can’t be blamed.  Then there are all those who grow up in a Muslim society and are taught from childhood that Christians are infidels.  The term used for such individuals is “invincible ignorance.”  The church has (almost!) always taught that God will deal mercifully with the invincibly ignorant.  I hope there are none of those at Holy Comforter!

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