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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Call Us Again

In what seems a completely judgmental parable, in fact everyone is invited to the wedding of the king’s son; Jesus’ challenge to us is why anyone would turn down an invitation like that, why we’d turn down God’s party.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 28, year A; texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

We were doing so well today in our readings from Scripture. And then Jesus showed up and ruined everything.

I mean it. Wasn’t the first reading lovely – on the mountain of the Lord, at the end of time presumably, God will set a feast for all peoples, will end death, and all will eat and be satisfied. And Psalm 23 – we love that psalm. Shepherd, green places, quiet streams, and once again a feast where our cups overflow, this time in the presence of our enemies. And then Paul’s beautiful words about rejoicing, about not being anxious, about the peace of God which passes all understanding guarding and keeping our hearts and minds.

We were doing so well. And then Jesus showed up and ruined everything. He had to tell one of his parables, and this one’s a real winner. There’s another feast set by a king, in honor of the wedding of his son. But no one wants to go to William and Catherine’s wedding this time. And unlike the first time Jesus told this parable, in the middle of his ministry as Luke records it, this time Jesus, in Holy Week urgency, adds some real pain. The guests kill the king’s servants. The king goes to war and destroys their whole city, and invites a whole bunch of people off the street, good and bad, so the party can go on. And then the king kicks out someone for not being dressed appropriately. And there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth in the darkness for that one (a phrase Jesus seems to use a lot and which we’d rather not hear again.)

Sometimes it’s hard to read the Gospel for the day and say “The Gospel of the Lord” at the end. Today is one of those days. Why is Jesus being so harsh? What is going on with all this judgment? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be all about grace? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be our Good Shepherd, who loves us enough to die for us, who rose from the dead to give us life?

That’s right, isn’t it? That’s just who Jesus is for us and for the world. When we hear a parable like this it’s easy to forget that we know the person who’s telling it, and we know a lot about him. And because of him we know about God’s love and grace for us and for the world. In fact, it’s because of so much of what we know about Jesus – what he taught us, what he did for us – that we recoil from parables like this one.

We can’t avoid it, so we need to look carefully at it today. But let’s always keep in mind that it is our loving, gracious, Good Shepherd who is telling this parable, and we can trust him.

It will be helpful at the start, then, to remember that Jesus did not tell parables as direct allegory – one thing equals another – but to turn reality on its head, to help us see God’s way of seeing, thinking, working in the world, God’s rule and reign.

There are three things to remember about Jesus’ parables in this context, then, especially the ones about judgment, which are worth considering since (I’m sorry to say) we’re going to be having more of these judgment parables as the next weeks move toward the end of the Church Year.

First, they don’t necessarily reflect God’s final judgment. Jesus is opening our minds to new reality, but these stories aren’t predictors of what Jesus will actually do in real life.

Take last week’s parable for example. Instead of taking the vineyard away from the wicked tenants, putting them to death, and giving the vineyard to someone more deserving, what the crowd of Jesus’ listeners said the owner should do, God does the opposite. God actually ends up doing what the wicked tenants were hoping for – they said, “Let’s kill the son, the heir, and we’ll get the inheritance.” And that’s exactly what happens. The judgment of God ends up being the grace of Jesus’ resurrection and we, who killed the son, get the inheritance.

So we can never read Jesus’ judgment parables and assume that the risen Jesus will use them as a blueprint. God’s judgment in the resurrection of Jesus trumps all other judgments.

Second, because Jesus is trying to subvert our sense of what reality is, and give us glimpse after glimpse of God’s ways, his parables often use radical, extreme examples to open us up, hard examples some times. They might be hard to grasp, but the reality, the kingdom, the rule and reign of God, that’s what Jesus wants to show.

So for example, no shepherd listening to Jesus would agree that a shepherd would ever leave 99 sheep unattended in the wilderness to go and find one. It just wouldn’t make sense. It’s shocking, actually. No father would ever agree to give away half of his inheritance for his sons to one son who asked for it. It just wasn’t done, and it would have left the father and elder son financially vulnerable. Again and again Jesus uses images which startle, and sometimes shock, to make a point. But they are not ever the point themselves.

So we don’t need to take any of the radical extremes today and try to figure out the details of them, or rationales for them. There’s no point in being bent out of shape in today’s parable about why the king destroys the city. It’s not the point, nor does it predict God’s destruction of the world. And there’s no point in trying to find exactly why the man without the wedding clothes was thrown out, or to try and make it the point of the parable.

The parable is all about the mystery of a king being generous and people rejecting that generosity. The king’s destruction of the city and throwing out of the unrobed man just accent the stunning reality: people rejected an invitation to a royal feast. They were the A-list, and they said no. These extreme details are intended to get us properly shocked at the rejection of the invitation.

Third, Jesus loves us. This we know. And that shapes every parable. It’s impossible to hear these apart from the reality that our Lord and Savior is telling them. Just as when a beloved parent or grandparent might tell us something we need to hear but which is hard to hear, it never removes their love from us. We never hear it separated from the fact that they changed our diapers and fed us when we were unable to feed, and held us when we were afraid. And so none of Jesus’ parables can be separated from the love of our risen Lord and Savior for us.

So what’s the new reality Jesus is showing us today? God’s throwing a huge party and all are invited – and somehow people reject this, we reject this.

In effect, Jesus is saying, “Look at Isaiah 25, look at Psalm 23 and imagine this: some people are going to say ‘no thanks’ to God.” Our first reading and psalm today actually set Jesus’ parable up beautifully. Just as we bask in the joy of anticipating God’s feast for all – even our enemies who will apparently eat with us – Jesus says, “yes, but some will say no.”

Which raises the question – why would anyone turn down an invitation to a royal wedding? Why would anyone turn down God’s feast? Here Jesus reveals yet again his insight into human nature.

Some are indifferent, as some are indifferent to God’s grace today. The word translated “they made light of it” is really closer to “they didn’t care anything for it, they disregarded it”. Another royal feast? Yawn. And so they went back to their work, their lives. God might be gracious, but there’s life to live, money to be made, and I really don’t have the time to go to God’s party.

Others seemingly are enraged at the king. Perhaps he didn’t do something, or did something which offended them. Under no circumstances will they accept this, in fact, they go ahead and kill his messengers. And so some people can’t hear of God’s love today because they are angry at God for what they perceive God to have done or not done, or angry at those who claim to be God’s messengers. They can’t imagine accepting an invitation to God’s party.

And the man without the wedding clothes – maybe there’s something to notice here as well. There are lots of attempts to understand what Jesus is trying to say here, and most don’t have any basis in the text. But perhaps we can think of other New Testament images of clothing and find another reason for rejecting the invitation.

We are invited by Paul in Romans 13 and Galatians 3 to put on the Lord Jesus Christ in baptism, to be clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and in Colossians 3 to be clothed with the life of Christ – compassion, humility, forgiveness, patience.

In one image it’s the idea that the only way we get into the party is to be covered in Christ, to have the goodness of our Lord put over our sin. Maybe sometimes we resent that – we’ve done things for which we’d like credit, and while we want grace, we also want to have some of our own righteousness count.

And in the other image, it’s an invitation to be clothed in this life with behavior and action which show Christ, to be changed by God’s invitation and new life so much that we act and live as new people. In other words, we’re forgiven and invited to the party, but once there we are asked to live the way the host lives. And maybe we’re not ready for that, either. If coming to God’s party in this life and the next means we can’t do whatever we want, well, that might be a problem.

What is clear is that whether there is indifference or anger to the invitation, or hesitation to come in on God’s terms, through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bottom line Jesus points out today is people are turning down God’s invitation to grace and he can’t understand it.

And that’s the reality that we really need to deal with in our own lives.

In fact, the new reality that Jesus seems to be giving us today is this: when it comes to Jesus’ grace, as in this parable, the only thing that can keep you out of God’s party is you turning it down.

Jesus has the king invite all – good and bad. There’s not even an ethical component to God’s invitation. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, Paul says in Romans 5. All get God’s invite, good and bad. Because God’s intent is to throw a party, a feast for all peoples. Five times in Isaiah today we’re told it’s for all peoples, everyone. That’s what got us excited about hearing Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23 in the first place.

So amazingly, in a parable which seems so judgmental, everyone in this parable, everyone, got an invitation. Not everyone came to the party.

In another parable which has a feast and a robe and a rejected invitation, the parable of the prodigal father and his wayward sons, the father needs to coax the older son to come to the feast. And maybe that’s what we need, too – help from the Good Shepherd we sang about in the psalm. The Lord’s my shepherd, I have all I need. Maybe what we need is to have our Shepherd teach us what we need. Show us yet again the green pastures and still waters, the feast spread before us, and say, “Come and eat.”

In our Prayer of the Day today, we prayed, “Call us again to your banquet.” And that’s our hope, isn’t it? That even though we’ve rejected God’s invitation plenty of times, we’d love another crack at it. And we’d love, with our Shepherd’s help, to have the ability to accept the invitation. To see that whatever our concerns or reasons to go our own way, the only way of life is in God’s party. Where everyone will feast and enjoy the hospitality and love of God.

And so with joy we end where we began, at Isaiah 25.

God’s throwing a feast for all peoples, and we are invited, all are. The shroud of death will be taken away, all tears wiped away. And there will be a feast to end all feasts. And in the meantime, David reminds us, there’s a feast in this life, the joy of food and life with God and each other now. And it’s for everyone, good and bad.

Friends, we don’t want to turn this invitation down. May our Shepherd call us once again, and lead us to the ways of life we so desperately need.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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