A sermon for Year A Proper 23; Matthew 22:1-14
Having been a bride only shortly over a year ago, for me the most difficult part of the planning process, was not picking the dress, or the cake, or the music, but it was actually hand selecting who would be invited to my wedding. Nate and I had set ourselves a limit of 80 invitations, hoping that about half would attend our destination celebration in Scotland. And considering I alone have over 45 first cousins, eleven sets of aunts and uncles, and then Nate bringing in his own family and all of our friends from college, and seminary, and more; agreeing on a guest list seemed like an insurmountable feat. It was painstaking for us to have to choose. The guest list wasn’t perfect, and in hindsight, there are a couple people for which I wish I had sent out extra invitations. But all in all it was a joyous day, an unbelievable day, a sacred day. It was a day that I am sure that held many similarities with our wedding feast in today’s Gospel from Matthew.
I can imagine that at the heavenly banquet (like at most weddings) there is good food, good dancing, and good laughs to be had by all. There is probably a lot of catching up with old friends; a lot of sharing of past happy memories; a lot of celebrating all the love in the room. But today’s Gospel, today’s wedding banquet, differed in one major way from any other marital celebration I have attended. In that difficult moment of trying to decide who gets an invitation and who does not, the king, God does not set a limit. God does not designate a number of attendees. Instead God welcomes all. God extends an invitation to everyone.
But before I get too warm and fuzzy, I have to admit I also struggle with this Scripture. I mean Matthew has this habit of making texts quite a bit harsher than they need to be. For example, of the seven times we hear the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” in the New Testament, six of the occurrences of this phrase are found in Matthew’s Gospel. This guy obviously had a bone to pick with someone. He had an axe to grind with the Pharisees (his audience for this parable and for the last two parables in his narrative). For Matthew is probably the most culturally Jewish of our four Gospel authors, but he is obviously feeling like and outsider and butting heads with the religious elite of his day, who do not understand his renewed faith. He butts heads with the scribes and the elders, the bishops and the priests, the vestry members, all religious insiders. Matthew is trying to put a little fear of God in them. In the process he is reminding us that as soon as we think that we are the only ones invited to the party, God invites those with whom we would rather not associate. In both this parable from Matthew, and the same parable from Luke that I must admit is much kinder—with no burning down of cities or throwing guests into the outer darkness—; in both of these accounts, there are three waves of invitations.
First, the guests we would all think of: the family and friends; the crazy uncle who tries to break dance on the floor; the maid of honor who hopes she catches the bouquet; the college roommate who recounts some of your less than ideal life choices. But all these individuals chose not to attend. So a second round of invites go out, reminding everyone the wedding banquet begins and that their presence is requested. But again those invited chose not to attend. So a third wave of invitations go out, this time to some unexpected guests: to everyone in the streets, to everyone in society, no matter if we deem them good or bad, accepted or ostracized. Invitations go out to everyone: to the homeless and the stay at home parent; to the lawyer and the outlaw; to the foster child and the class valedictorian; to the skiers and the snow boarders; to the republicans and the democrats and the libertarians and the socialists. Invitations go out to everyone. What kind of wedding crashers are these? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never attended this kind of wedding, or this kind of party period. During our earthly feasts and festivities, there are always insiders and outsiders, welcome guests and just plain nuisances.
However, at God’s opportunity to celebrate, everyone is invited.
I love this theme from today’s parable. It is a theme of grace, a feast of grace. This theological term that means everybody is extended an invite by God. Everyone is welcome at the party. In my experience, grace is a reminder that no matter how broken I am, no matter how good I am or how bad I am, no matter how much I have hurt or been hurt by those I love, no matter how many times I have sinned against God’s creation, the Divine still invites me to the heavenly feast. The Divine still calls out to me. The Divine still loves me.
John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican priest, also loved this theme of grace so much that he felt the need to name the multiple dimensions of grace, defining it in three stages. First, this festive invitation, this abundant welcome, this love letter from God he calls prevenient grace. “Prevenient grace is the grace that comes to us before we know God. In prevenient grace God takes the initiative.” It is that moment when God reaches out to us. God initiates relationship with us.
But our parable for today, this allegory, this metaphor does not end with God’s own initiative. In fact it is our human response that begins to muddle this passage and makes it uncomfortable for us. Yes, God begins the relationship, but we have to intentionally choose to respond to God’s invitation. We can’t just throw away the save the date or forget to RSVP, or like the parable of the two sons from two Sundays ago, say of course we’re coming and then conveniently don’t show. No God wants us there and God wants us to respond. God wants an enthusiastic: “Heck yes! What time does the party start? I’ll be there thirty minutes early and I’ll bring the chex mix.” John Wesley calls our response to God, justifying grace. Justifying grace is a moment of repentance, of conversion, of screaming, “YES LORD!” Wesley reminds us that in justifying grace we gotta do some of our own internal work. We gotta be intentional in our own response. God continues to welcomes us—as the king sends out that second round of invitations—, but we have to actively and consciously make the choice to attend the party.
Even in that moment, when we arrive at the celebration, the choice to follow Jesus; the choice to accept God’s invitation; the choice to transform our lives anew is not over. No, instead we must actively choose to be a part of God’s community, the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, every moment of our lives. This step is what Wesley calls sanctifying grace. “Sanctifying Grace is a purifying and cleansing process that continues throughout our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.” Sanctifying grace means that God’s Spirit is continually working on our daily lives. Sanctifying grace means we will still make mistakes. We will still be broken individuals. However, unlike the guest without the party robe, we cannot remain silent when God calls out to us pretending like we are not in need of God’s grace. This guest intentionally chose to separate himself from the party, to not undergo a change, a transformation, a visible sign that he continues to accept God’s help. Yet God offers him grace again. Even as the guest believes he is not in need of this party robe (that scholars believe may signify the traditional white baptismal robe, a unifier and equalizer as part of the Christian community), the king calmly asks the guest, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (Mt 22:12, NRSV) The king, God calls the guest a friend, and God wishes the guest to answer. But he chooses not to. He chooses to remain silent.
Yet friends, our response to God’s invitation is anything but silent. The response to God’s invitation is an affirmation of faith. The response to God’s invitation is our baptismal response, “I will with God’s help.” With God’s help we respond with generosity to the pain in our world, those suffering from wildfires and shootings and hurricanes, and too many tragedies to begin to name. With God’s help we respond in love instead of judgement and exclusivity, welcoming those aching to join the celebration, the good and the bad, the accepted and the ostracized. With God’s help we respond to the outsider in our midst: from an English as a second language learner to the Tahoe tourist; from the spiritual seeker to the child who has never stepped foot in a sanctuary. With God’s help we extend the invitation of God’s grace to all, because that same invitation has been extended to us.
Thanks be to God! No one was left off this guest list, and all are welcome at the party.