October 12, 2011
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Strandjord, ELCA staff
This gospel text is complicated . . .strange . . . even dangerous (especially if the reader or hearer has any leaning toward anti-semitism). It would be so much easier to preach on the first or second lesson—and then of course, there is that consistently chart-topping psalm: good old #23. Or if one is going to insist on preaching this parable, Luke’s version is so much less messy, less distressing, even displaying some of that elegant touch Luke brings to every narrative.
But strange and dangerous as Matthew’s version is, there’s nourishment here too—at least three important things worth chewing on. Two of them also occur in Luke. But there’s also a unique third course—a Matthean dessert.
But we’re not going to start with dessert. No, first comes a salad course—some sharp-tasting field greens in an almost-entirely-vinegar vinaigrette: something to wake a body up. This text is in part a wake-up call to all who hear God’s word of invitation: “Pay attention! Don’t miss it! Don’t delay! The feast is NOW.” That’s pretty much all I heard in this parable for many years; it was summed up in what was (at least way back in the sixties in Northwest Washington) a standard bible camp song:
I cannot come; I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now;
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow;
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum;
Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.
Yes—what we were singing around the campfire was actually Luke’s version of the parable, not Matthew’s (which would, come to think of it, be a pretty dramatic song!). But both versions warn against delay. The parable is a warning against indifference to the good news of God’s in-breaking kingdom; it is a warning against preferring our own little plans, purposes, schemes and agendas as more important than the reign of God. This text is a bracing tonic. But that is not all it delivers.
For this text doesn’t only speak to us as God’s invited guests. Just as important, it speaks to us as apostles (“sent ones”). And to the sent ones, it delivers a second course—some comfort food.
Consider the king’s slaves. They seem to have pretty good duty, a happy assignment. I mean, they’re not collecting taxes or serving warrants—they’ve got an invitation to a royal wedding to deliver! But their first round of announcements yields nothing. And the second round brings derision, even violence. So, where’s the comfort, the good news for “sent ones”? The king sends them out yet a third time—and now to everyone they meet, everyone they can find (both good and evil). And lo and behold, the banquet hall is filled.
Matthew’s gospel was written to a community under stress, facing strong opposition; to an apostolic (“sent”) community that encountered resistance and rejection. To such a community, this parable says, “Fear not!”—the gospel will gain a hearing; God’s word will not return empty. The banquet for all peoples that Isaiah prophesied is beginning even now.
This message was the main course for Matthew’s community—not so much “listen up” as “don’t give up”. It is perhaps the main course for the church in our time too—certainly a good word for a seminary community (full of people who have showed up and who are in training as invitation delivery folks and banquet staff). Even if we experience failure in our efforts, our work is still not futile. For God is determined to fill the banquet hall. And so, in the end, it will be.
Comforting, encouraging words that strengthen us to get out there and risk being “sent ones” again, and again, and again.
But we’re not done yet. There’s an important final course--and the unique part of the Matthean menu. Both tart and sweet; like key lime pie. This guy without a wedding garment: what might be the gift for us here?
Here is a good word—a crucial word—for those who have answered the invitation to the wedding feast, to those who are servants of God (part of the host’s household), the apostolic community. They—we—are in danger not only of getting discouraged when others don’t respond to the word of invitation; what’s more, we can forget where we are. We can forget that we are at a banquet. It is so easy to turn the life of faith and of life together into a task, a project, a road to joy only later and not here and now.
Matthew is clear—the feast is now. And we are there, reclining at the table wherever we may find ourselves. Not just in this worship space but also in classes (even the hardest ones), in sometimes (even always) messy apartments where rambunctious children demand attention and are forever coming down with something or other, in walking with and sometimes leading communities of faith struggling to be about what God is calling them to be, in standing with and for individuals, groups and whole peoples who hunger for justice and peace—in all these places, we are at the feast. NOW.
This does not mean that we’re always smiling, never crying. Remember, it’s a wedding feast—and I’ve seen plenty of tears at those. Shed some too. And I’ve seen lots of surprise, disorder, worry, arguments and last minute hustling improvisation. But it’s still a wedding feast.
If this still seems to be too much starry eyed optimism, too much happy talk, I’ve got a witness: no less than Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the principal founders of liberation theology, a man well acquainted with struggle and grief:
“Emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God’s gratuitous love.”
Wherever we are, whatever the situation, we are within the horizon of God’s gratuitous love. We’re at the feast. To remember this is to live in the light and to live free—able to act even when faced with rejection and failure. To forget we’re at the feast—to think there’s no reason to wear a wedding garment; well then we’re in the dark, bound hand and foot, unfree. Without God’s gratuitous love, the last word over each and all and everything is “futility.” With the horizon of God’s love in view—the last word is “behold, I make all things new.”*
Dear “sent ones”--don’t forget to eat dessert.
* Gustavo Gutierrez, Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings; Fortress Press, 1996, p. 314