Unexpected guests? Sermon for 12 October 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 12 October 2014: Year A, Proper 23
SERMON
Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Unexpected guests?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The churches in Scotland, in common with churches around Europe, are facing challenges like never before. We are seeing fewer people wanting to join us in our communities of faith. Our influence is decreasing, in the face of enormous cultural changes.

Faced with the challenge of the way faith is changing in our culture great change, religious people are often tempted to go back to their holy books, believing that there they can find precepts which are unchanging and comforting. The idea is that when we are faced with change and challenge, we should go back to scripture to find words of comfort and hope.

Now, there certainly is comfort and hope in the Bible. We just sung the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s my Shepherd. Who could not take comfort from those words? Even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, God goes with us. I don’t know about you, but I cling to that idea. It helps me to be grounded in faith, even as I deal with the worst the world can throw at me.

But comfort and hope are not the only messages of the Bible. For very often the passages of Scripture which we turn to for comfort and hope in our times of crisis were, in fact, forged during times which were also times of crisis for the people of God.

People coming to the Bible for the first time are often struck by the violence of the book. Especially in the Old Testament there is much murder, massacre and war. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us a story which features beatings, executions, and the burning down of a city. The Bible is not a gentle book. For much of our Bible was written by people in times of crisis, whose faith was at a crisis point.

For example, many of the Psalms are prayers by people who are crying out for God’s presence in times of crisis. I strongly suspect that of Psalm 23 was not written in green pastures and by still waters. We sing this Psalm when we are walking in death’s dark vale, because we realise that the Psalm writer knew that experience, perhaps because he too was in the valley of the shadow of death when he wrote it.

Or in our reading from Isaiah 25, we hear of God being praised, even although he has ruined the cities and destroyed the palaces of his enemies. Yet God has provided shelter to the poor and helpless, and silenced the wicked. And so the prophet goes on to say- it will be betterm for one day God will host a banquet for all the nations. There will be great food and the best wine. Death will be destroyed and God will wipe away the tears of the suffering. It is out of the experience of suffering, death, destruction, that hope and faith is formed. People in ruined cities can look forward to a rich banquet. Someone walking in the shadow of death can look forward to green pastures. Faith is formed out of crisis.

The Bible was largely written by people at times of crisis, when the foundations of their faith and all they held dear was being shaken. And that is the reason why it is very relevant to us today. For Scripture does not give us just easy comfort. Rather, it brings hope because it is realistic. We hear from the pages of our scripture the voice of those who have been here before- we hear the voices, the hopes and the fears of other people whose faith was in crisis. That’s how it can help us in our critical times.

So: today’s Gospel reading is a fascinating and complicated parable about the Kingdom of God. It is about how people are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God. As we deal with falling numbers in our churches today, can we perhaps look here for some clues to how God invites people into the Kingdom? After all, we want to invite people to join us in the adventure of being part of God’s Kingdom.

‘Jesus again used parables in talking to the people’, says Matthew- and Jesus, indeed, begins by saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son’. The mention of a feast reminds us of the vision of Isaiah- that God will give a feast for all people. It’s wonderful to think that the Kingdom of heaven is like a feat, or a party, or a banquet. Whatever else it is about, it is a celebration. Perhaps one of the reasons people don’t see much sign of the Kingdom in many churches today is that we don’t seem to celebrate much. Too many church services are nervous rituals, rather than joyful celebrations of the Kingdom.

But in the parable. something odd happens with this particular celebration. The king sends out invitations to his son’s wedding banquet. If you got an invitation to a royal wedding, would you go? I suspect that even the most hardened republican would find it hard to turn down an invitation to a royal wedding banquet. Yet in the parable, people won’t come: ‘But the invited guests paid no attention and went about their business: one went to his farm, another to his store, while others grabbed the servants, beat them, and killed them’.

The original setting for this parable is the painful relationship between early Christianity and Judaism. The difficulties began even in Jesus’ own lifetime. Jesus, born a Jews, has a ministry firstly to the Jewish people. But many of the them- especially their leaders rejected him. And then, later, after Easter, the faith he founded gained many conversions of Gentiles- non-Jews- members of other religions. Whilst most Christian leaders were delighted that the faith seemed to popular with all kinds of people, it was painful to watch Christianity becoming increasingly estranged from the Jewish religion in which it had its roots.

However, when we read the Bible with imagination, we hear it speak to us about our own history, and our own contemporary situation. For us, this is not just a story about ancient people rejecting Christianity two thousand years ago. Instead its reminds us that God invites all kinds of people to the banquet in his Kingdom.

Yet listen to the list of excuses: ‘the invited guests paid no attention and went about their business: one went to his farm, another to his store…’ no great evil there, just people getting on with their lives. They are not tempted by a wedding feast, they are just caught up in their own mundane activities. For some of the servants, it is, of course, more serious- ‘others [who were invited] grabbed the servants, beat them, and killed them’. Some people will find the invitation to God’s Kingdom simply doesn’t interest them. Some will be too busy with things they think more important, like earning a living. But a few are offended and even violent. All this reminds us that we are not guaranteed success when we try to invite people to join in God’s Kingdom.

So the king has another idea. If the ones he invites won’t come, then his servants are told to find more people; and we are told they went and brought in ‘good and bad alike’. So the people you’d have thought would come to the banquet refuse to come, and so the king invites the sort of people who don’t usually get invitations to royal weddings. Again, the original context is the tensions with Judaism. The first Christians would hear this story and think about how the Jewish leaders had treated Jesus, and about how many Jews were not accepting the gospel. (The reference to the city being burned down may be a reminder that between the time of Jesus and the writing of Matthew’s Gospel, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, something some Christians might have understood as some kind of judgement).

But again, if we read it imaginatively, the story can become about us. Could it be that the invitation to the Kingdom is going to folks whom we don’t expect to be invited? There’s a version of this parable in Luke’s gospel, in which we hear the king command his servants, ‘Go out to the country roads and lanes and make people come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you all that none of those who were invited will taste my dinner!’ And that, of course, is exactly how it often was for Jesus. The Jewish leaders often rejected what he had to say, so he took his message to those who were often on the edge of society. We need to keep reminding ourselves that the invitation to the Kingdom banquet is not just for people like us. God’s invitation is wide and inclusive, wider and more inclusive than we are perhaps comfortable with. That’s a lesson we need to learn again and again- that God’s invitation is not just to people who’d enjoying being in the sort of church we like.

Now, the version of this parable in Luke’s Gospel ends there- with the people brought in from the highways and byways, the royal palace filled with unexpected people enjoying the royal wedding feast. It is an inclusive image, one which we can enjoy and celebrate, a vision for us as we ponder how to advance the Kingdom today. But in Matthew’s version- in the text we have to deal with this morning- there is an additional section. In fact, many scholars think it’s really an additional parable, which Matthew has tacked on here because it has the same setting. It might be better to think of if as a separate story.

We said earlier that if we were invited to a royal wedding, you would go. So here’s another wedding question: if you are invited to a wedding, do you think about what you’re going to wear? Of course you do! I noticed that when the BBC covered the last royal wedding, they had expert in the studio to talk about fashion, though no expert to talk about the religious service! We can overdo it, but there is something about a wedding that makes us want to dress up, to be at our best.

I remember going to my sister’s wedding, walking down the lane to the church, and in front of me was a lady dressed in what even I could see was a very elegant outfit- matching hat, coat, and dress. She was very chic, and I didn’t recognise her, and assumed she was from the groom’s side- until she turned round, and I realised it was my mum! We all put on our best for a wedding- it’s a way of honouring the occasion, honouring the couple.

And it seems that, even in Jesus’ time, people dressed up for royal weddings at least. If you went to a wedding, you were expected to make an effort. And so this strange wee extra parable in Matthew:

“The king went in to look at the guests and saw a man who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ the king asked him. But the man said nothing. Then the king told the servants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him outside in the dark. There he will cry and gnash his teeth.'”

Instead of ending on the note of inclusiveness, as Luke does, Matthew tacks on this rather dark note of judgement. Yet the earlier parable has that note of judgement as well, about the people who won’t come in the first place.

William Barclay called the first parable ‘the parable of the open door’, for it is about the wideness of God’s invitation, about the inclusiveness of God’s grace. But he says this second parable ‘strikes the necessary balance. It is true that the door is open to all people… But a [person] cannot go on living the life he led before he met Jesus Christ. He must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness’ (Barclay, Daily Study Bible Matthew vol.2, p270).

This parable is not telling us we need to wear nice clothes to go to church. Instead, it’s telling us that we can’t live as Christians in the same old rags we used to wear. It’s a matter of respect to wear your best for a wedding- but how often do we disrespect God by not being our best for him? We ought to be changed by being invited to God’s banquet. Barclay puts it like this: ‘The door is open, but the door is not open for the sinner to come and remain a sinner, but for the sinner to come and become a saint’.

A king, a banquet, servants sent out with invitations, invitations rejected, invitations accepted, and someone who doesn’t dress for the occasion. In these two parables, where are we? Often, we are called to be the servants, who will brave rejection and worse, in order to take the invitation. And we are also guests- have we really said yes to God’s invitation? And have we remembered to be our best? I wonder if today many people reject us when we try to be messengers, because we aren’t dressed properly? We talk of joy and celebration, but our worship too often lapses into empty ritual. We speak of God’s inclusiveness, but are unwilling to accept anyone too different from us. We’ve accepted the invitation, but we forget to be at our best.

This parable- or these two parables- come from an age when Christianity was growing, but was facing the pain of rejection and persecution. Jesus does not paper over the cracks- it is not going to be easy being the servants who take the invitations. And yet we, and humanity in all its difference, are invited to God’s banquet, to enjoy and celebrate God’s love and grace. It’s the most important invitation we will ever receive.

Ascription of Praise
To the King of the ages,
immortal, invisible,
the only God,
be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17 NRSV

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2014 Peter W Nimmo