Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2011
Methodist Bishop William Willimon tells the story of a recurring dream that he has. He is standing in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and well into the thick of the sermon, gesticulating with his arms and making an important point when, suddenly, he turns to look at the choir in the chancel and they all have this horrified look on their faces. And he looks down and realizes that he is wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. Somehow he forgot not only to put on his vestments but to put on any clothes. There are times when I get in this pulpit with the responsibility of preaching about a gospel like the one we just heard when I feel about as unclothed and inadequate as Bishop Willimon.
The parable told in Matthew’s Gospel today is the third in a series that Jesus related during the final days of his ministry. At first glance it is at the least offensive. It is a violent story and paints a very mean picture of a king who takes great revenge on those who refuse his invitation to the wedding and, having rounded up the rift raft from the streets, then punishes the person who is not wearing a wedding garment. Those piercing words—“the weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I can recall hearing them in my childhood, gloomily and sternly enunciated by the priest. And, in those days, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of sermon followed.
This is a text we have to unpack carefully or it may send us running out the door for it is an elaborate allegory. First, a wedding feast in the time of Jesus lasted several days so it is somewhat understandable why at least some of the guests could not take that much time from their livelihood to attend. Killing the messengers who came to remind them, however, is a little over the top. The key to the puzzle is to understand that the story is all a metaphor that expresses the disappointment that Jesus has with the religious authorities—especially the Pharisees. So it is really not a story about the common folk but, if you will, the clergy and hierarchy of that time. They have rejected the invitation to celebrate the appearance of God’s Son as the Messiah. The destruction of the city is a reference to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD when the temple was demolished.
So the first part of the parable is really directed at the religious leaders of the day—leaders who lived and ruled like kings, taught the people about a God of retribution and vengeance, forced them to observe the letter of the law, and treated the common folk very shabbily—while they, the clergy, lived high on the hog and walked with their noses up in the air. These are the same people Jesus called “hypocrites.” Those types are still around today.
Now the second part of the parable is where we need to pay attention because it does have some implications for us. It’s about how one of the people invited from the street corner chose to dress. It may be amusing for us who are a congregation that is pretty much a “come as you are group” and where sneakers and jeans are in the mix with our smells and bells and where, in the summer months, even our clergy wear shorts and sandals under their vestments. Why was the king so unreasonable? If you are going to pick up your guests last minute at the local Stop and Shop, how can you expect that they will come in their best wedding finery?
Some scholars think that, since the wedding garment mentioned in the parable was not cheap, wedding hosts provided garments for their guests much like fancy restaurants keep a spare (usually very ugly) jacket on hand for anyone who shows up in just shirt sleeves. If that was true, then the onus shifts from the king to the guest. Why did he refuse the robe offered to him?
In truth, the wedding garment is again a metaphor for something else. First, the good news we can glean from the parable: those God uses for God’s work in the world are often the most unlikely candidates for service. And those who think they are the heirs to God’s Kingdom, as did the religious leaders who Jesus addressed in this story, may be rejected if they put their agenda first.
What might help us to understand what this text is saying is to substitute the word “invitation” for “evangelism.” God’s Kingdom is like a feast and God invites us to come. Furthermore, Jesus gives us the responsibility of inviting others. Evangelism is inviting one another to a royal feast for which there is no guest list. The man without the garment is the person who answer’s the invitation but makes no effort to demonstrate how he or she values the invitation or how grateful to be part of God’s banquet feast.
Popular author John Dominic Crossan cites the Parable of the Feast as containing the “essential” elements of the teaching of Jesus’ Kingdom teaching and social program. It is radical to the max. No one gets elected to the banquet nor does anyone earn an invitation because of class or status or gender or age or looks. God’s Kingdom is one of “radical egalitarianism,” says Crossan. This is a kingdom that contains no hierarchies, is not fueled by competition and has not even a hint of oppression. The Kingdom of God is open to all—at any time, any place, any circumstance. It is how the world would be run, Crossan contends, if God, not Caesar, were sitting on the throne.
Who comes to this banquet? A leper, a man born blind, tax collectors, public sinners, a woman with a flow of blood, little people without a checkbook or voter’s registration, a woman of the night who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears. And they all come with deep gratitude.
The question for us this morning is what will we do? Will we get caught up in the world of achievement and affluence and make excuses why we can’t take our place at God’s Table—or will we just come—simply, faithfully, and, most gratefully? The parable of the banquet is offered as a reminder that there is a cost to radical inclusion. The entry fee would be our response—a serious, thankful, earnest response that takes us beyond just enjoying the meal to giving ourselves in service for the good and health of the community of those with whom we gather at the banquet table.
There are times when I feel like the preacher in whose dream appeared in the pulpit without any clothing. I feel unworthy to be given the awesome task of preaching God’s Good News, of presiding at God’s sacred meal of the Eucharist, of enjoying the sublime worship with which I have been blessed, of receiving the gifts of God—the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood—and the powerful experience of healing prayer. Perhaps there are days when you feel that way also—fully grateful to be here and accepted just as you are but feeling unworthy and undeserving of it all.
I am comforted and encouraged by the words of Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor:
“God is not looking for warm bodies but for wedding guests who will rise to the occasion of honoring the son. We can do that in shorts and sneakers, I think, as well as in suits and high heels, because our wedding robes are not made of denim or silk. They are made of the whole fabric of our lives, using patterns God has given us—patterns of justice, forgiveness, loving-kindness, peace. When we stitch them up and put them on we are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”