This Sunday's Sermon
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8th
JUDGEMENT AND GRACE
Matthew 22: 1-14
There are reasons, I suppose, why someone would decline the invitation to a wedding party. In another time and place, I served as Associate Pastor to a large, downtown congregation planted in historic Bethlehem, PA. Our worship sanctuary was so spacious and beautiful that it had become a magnet for dozens of weddings every year. The senior pastor typically officiated the weddings of church members, while I was offered those of non-church members. Can you imagine what it’s like going to wedding receptions at which you don’t know anyone and – worse yet – at which you’re sometimes made to feel like a two headed snake at a circus side-show? I’d often be seated with the photographer who, of course, would be up and shooting more photos in about 30 seconds. On one memorable occasion, a fellow came staggering over to me, sat in one of the several empty chairs next to mine, draped his arm over my shoulder, and demanded that I pose with him for a photo. "I want the guys at work to see this,” he stammered – "a picture of me sitting with the Father.” Did I mention that he smelled like something squeezed out of a bartender’s rag? It was thereafter that I’d often express gratitude for invitations to the wedding party of non-church members, but politely decline.
When other people beg off from weddings and wedding receptions, it usually has to do with schedule. That, at least, is the reason mentioned by Jesus of Nazareth in the story he told of citizens who blew off the wedding feast prepared by their king. Now as with Jesus’ other stories, we’re learning from it some truth about God’s Kingdom. The Parable of the Wedding Feast is about Divine judgment and Grace as markers of God’s Rule.
Now the notion of a wedding carries powerful Biblical symbolism. "Your Maker is your bridegroom,” says the prophet, Isaiah (54:5, THE MESSAGE). Then, too, the union of Christ crucified and risen with his beloved church is described like this, in the Book of Revelation: "Let us be glad and rejoice… For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself… [Her wedding dress of pure, white linen] represents the good deeds of God’s holy people” (19:7-8, New Living Translation).
We can therefore understand Jesus’ parable as a metaphor, or symbol, for what God’s doing in our world through the work of his Son. God sent Jesus Christ to share God’s unmerited, undeserved, and unconditional love – that is, to reveal God’s Grace. It’s for Grace that Jesus taught the Way of goodness, mercy, and justice. It’s by Grace that the Good Master heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and gives sight to the blind – these, among other signs pointing to God’s will for people and their well-being. But alas, people then – as now – are so busy, so scheduled, so hurried that they’re at risk of missing out on the celebration of real Life as the Creator intends it.
Lord knows how I’ve regretted missed opportunities. One of my closest high-school friends died a few years ago. I’d not seen him for the longest time. My dad – God rest his soul – told me that Paul had retired early and moved back to his former home near Thurmont. I often thought that I should give him a call and talk again. As teenagers we’d had so many deep, meaningful conversations about politics and philosophies of life, about religion and God. Our last conversation – shortly before I headed off for seminary – was about his search for God, among other things. Who knows but what Grace from on High I might have offered to my old friend before cancer cut short his life. Why didn’t I try to reconnect? – Because I was too busy; or, at least, so I said it. To feel so hurried in that way absolutely blinds us to the glory, goodness, and Grace of God’s Kingdom come on earth. As famous psychologist, Carl Jung, said it so well: "Hurry is not of the devil: hurry IS the devil.” Hurry is what so often stunts our maturing into fully devoted followers of Christ!
Now moving on through Jesus’ parable; did you notice a sentence or two that seemed… well… outlandish? Some folks in the crowd not only dissed the king’s wedding party invitation but killed the messengers – for which the king sent armies to destroy them and their town. So what’s THAT about? Here’s a hint: Jesus said, according to Matthew 23:37, "Jerusalem! Jerusalem – the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers!” Truth is, Gospel Matthew is thought to have been written at a time after the armies of the Roman Empire had destroyed and leveled Jerusalem. One is therefore compelled to wonder how things would have turned out differently if people in the land had truly received Jesus as God-With-Us. Had they listened to the Good Master, they might have taken to heart something that he’d said: namely, "Those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). The Roman Empire, it seems, had gotten tired of all those small-scale, armed Jewish rebellions. Thus did they act with overwhelming force to put an end to it. Those awkward lines in the parable about a town’s destruction are a reflection on the real-life reality of people who had ignored and rejected God’s Message as revealed in God’s visitation in the person of the Christ.
Then, as you may recall, the king sends out another crew of messengers, commanding them to invite EVERYONE they find to the son’s wedding feast. Everyone! – Jewish and non-Jewish; good folks and scoundrels too! That’s an incredible description of God’s Grace reaching out to claim the sinners as well as the saints. This notion of God’s love and forgiveness offered up as a gift to everyone – regardless of history, regardless of merit, and regardless of deserving – is perhaps the most unique and distinctive Truth there is about the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ. Grace means that our salvation – that our place in God’s Presence – is not about something WE do; not about something we DO. Grace means that Jesus Christ has already done the heavy lifting for us and our salvation: that the Son of God, in his dying and resurrection, has accomplished what we could never have done on our own – namely, set us to rights with the most High God. Here’s the paraphrase on Ephesians 2:8-10… "Saving is all [God’s] idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does” (The Message).
It’s by Way of God’s unconditional love shown through Jesus Christ that we’re forgiven and offered New Life by the Power of God. What could possibly be more joyful than that? How about a wedding feast in celebration of the love shared between the bride and the groom? Come, then, and celebrate with the Son of God who, like the bridegroom, unites himself with us, the Church – the Bride of Christ. Come as you are; whether good, bad, or something in between. Come, because the Holy One has invited you. Come, because it’s your joyful desire. But do come as one who’s prepared to be re-clothed, so to speak.
It’s in the second part of Jesus’ parable that we confront the reality of God’s Judgment. These sentences are, I suppose, a correction to the well-intentioned attitudes that sanction the way-things-are-and-have-always-been. Now it’s absolutely true that EVERYONE is invited as they are into God’s Kingdom. But to come properly dressed – to use Jesus’ metaphor – is to be fully prepared for transformation: to come willingly into a Kingdom where God, by the Power of Christ, will wholly change the way you think, the way you act and speak, the way you relate to others, and the way you set priorities for living.
The truth of the matter is that wedding guests in Jesus’ time and place were not required to wear fancy clothes or expensive suits to a wedding party. Jewish custom demanded one thing, and one thing only: that the clothes be clean. The guy described in Jesus’ story had strolled into the banquet hall wearing a torn shirt that was badly stained with olive oil and that was dropping fish scales onto the floor. His pants, from the knees down, were encrusted in sheep manure; the stuff of which his feet were tracking all over the place. He’d accepted the King’s invitation to the son’s wedding – sure enough – but he refused to shine himself up. He was, in other words, comfortable with himself exactly as he was. It’s one thing to come into God’s Presence as you are: it’s an altogether different thing to insist on STAYING as you are in a Kingdom that demands Christ-like living, Christ-like mercy and humility, Christ-like caring, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The grungy guy in Jesus’ parable represents the religious souls who nevertheless REFUSE to abandon their own agendas in order to become the New Creation that God’s intends and that God alone can shape.
Here, from Colossians 3:12, is one notable example of what’s required to be properly dressed at the wedding feast of God’s Son and his bride, the Church: "So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, [and] discipline” (as paraphrased in THE MESSAGE). To "dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you,” means receiving Jesus’ Spirit into your spirit; it means letting Christ shape your every priority and every life-decision. The invitation to joy in God’s Kingdom requires of us a make-over by the Power of God.
Another preacher told a group of us engaged in a church mission project of the time he travelled home from an out-of-town event by way of bus. As the large vehicle lumbered on through the late night hours, another fellow boarded the bus and sat in the seat next to my colleague. His name was Mike – a large, hairy, brutish lookin’ guy who, said the preacher, looked like he could have been a disciple amongst the Hell’s Angels. As they talked, Mike shared of his less than "clean” and happy life – a life of unhealthy attachments and addictions, of broken marriages and toxic relationships, amongst other sad things. When, at last, the conversation turned to the preacher’s life-story, Mike showed himself extraordinarily familiar with the teachings of Jesus. That’s because – as he testified – he had grown up going to church and Sunday School. "You know the Good Master’s words,” said the preacher, "so why not let Jesus make a positive difference in your life?” Mike’s reply came in a heartbeat: "Because when you let him in, he messes with you.”
Indeed! He does just that! That’s what makes the Good News of Jesus Christ both Good and New. When the Master comes in, he messes with us by turning our fears into love, our anxieties into peace, our shame into hope, our greed into generosity, our pride into humility, our unhealthy attachments into perfect freedom to live out the joy of the Lord. And that, ultimately, is the last and eternal Word of Jesus – the Word of Grace! It’s written in Gospel John: "God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him” (3:17, NLT). So it is that the Grace of God in Christ crucified and risen is a free gift, offered to everyone – no holds barred. It’s a gift that "messes with us” – transforming us toward the only things that last forever; that is Christ-like faith, hope, and love.