- St. Paul's
Sermon - 19 Pentecost
In the Name...
A Baptist minister and an Episcopal priest once agreed to hold a pulpit exchange. Since the priest would wear a plain suit at the Baptist church, he asked the minister to wear an alb when he visited the Episcopal church. The next day, the priest asked his friend how he thought it went. "Just fine" the minister replied, "But, I was sure glad to put my trousers back on afterwards."
Throughout his ministry, Jesus used stories - parables - to express and communicate deep spiritual truths in terms to which we human beings could relate and visualize in a concrete manner. But, while a good story often owes its success to its realism, the strength of a good parable is often found in an element which jars our sensibility and convention. For example, a few weeks ago, we heard about a farmer who was incredibly careless about where he scattered seeds. Three-quarters of them ended up in the strangest places. And in a few more weeks, we'll hear a lesson which seems to say that gambling is a good thing. Stay tuned.
Now, today's parable is about the kingdom of God. The king hosting the feast is God the Father. The son, for whom it is prepared, is Jesus. The wedding is that between Jesus and the Church, the people of God. No surprises, thus far. As Jesus often said, and as our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah portrayed, God is described in royal terms and the prophets foretold that the future reunion of Him and His people would be an occasion of feasting and celebration.
When God is present, joy and festivity are the order of the day. The famous 23rd Psalm gives us an image of tables of good things and cups running over. The power of this image is that royal banquets are very special events. Even in our society, invitations to dine with leading politicians, or business and professional leaders, are considered special honours.
To dine, then, with the leader of leaders, the King of Kings, is the most coveted invitation which can be imagined, the greatest honour and privilege. Or, at least, it should be. And that brings us to the first surprise in the parable. The invited guests don't seem to care.
Throughout the Old Testament, the assumption is made that the invited people will flock to this feast from north and south and east and west. Of course, the Old Testament writers knew, and Jesus' audience knew, and we know, that an invitation is a voluntary thing. We have the option to decline it, to send our regrets. RSVP. And we do all the time when we're invited to things every day. But, nobody in the Old Testament seems to have seriously considered the possibility that anybody would refuse God's invitation. Yet Jesus says that is exactly what will happen.
Sounds incredible, doesn't it? That people would miss an opportunity to eat and drink with God. Unbelievable, right. So, look around. We're here to eat and drink with God. Is every seat filled? People have exercised their options. It's like the parable. Everybody has a good excuse. Thanks, God, but, some other time. I'm a bit busy this morning.
And, what happens in the parable to those who send their regrets to God? Ummm. Not very cheerful.
But, the feast is not cancelled. The messengers are sent out again to bring in everybody they can find off the streets. Everybody - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Well, maybe not the ugly, but, the phrase "good and bad" in the parable means in the Middle East what you and I mean when we say "high and low", those of good or high birth and status and those of bad or low birth and status. In other words, everyone is welcome at God's table. Man-made distinctions of class and property are irrelevant in God's eyes.
And so, the parable seems to be heading for a happy ending with a hall full of happy party-goers, when all of a sudden, wham! The king accosts a guest with the words, "Oi. How did you get in here? You're not wearing the right clothes."
Now is this strange, or what?
Think about it from the opposite side for a moment. Which is stranger? That a guy dragged in off the street isn't wearing a tuxedo, or that everybody else dragged in is. Hmmm. Something's up here.
We've all heard the phrase, "the clothes make the man". And we often assume things about people based on how they're dressed.
I want to share a story here. Several years ago, Geralyn Wolf, the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, took a couple of months off, she said, for study. But, what she really did during that time was to secretly live rough on the streets as a homeless woman, dressed in cast-off clothing, going from shelter to shelter, doing odd jobs, looking for hand-outs. And, like any homeless person, she visited churches. Some were Episcopal churches. Nobody recognized her.
Yes, we make judgments based on clothing - and we're often wrong. But, God never is. So what does he see, or not see, in this man?
We all know the story of the Emperor's New Clothes in which a couple of frauds claim to have a magic fabric which only virtuous people can see. The Emperor, not wishing to appear un-virtuous, convinces himself he can see the cloth and his grovelling courtiers, not to be outdone, follow suit (pun intended). It takes a little child to speak the truth that the Emperor has no clothes.
Well, Jesus warned, in another place, that not everybody who says, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven and here we have the case of a man who thought that was all he had to do. He said the religious words and maybe even knew his Scripture, but, he didn't have the heart to put those fine words into practice. Like the Emperor in the story, he was convinced he owned a fine suit of clothes and his neighbours were too polite to tell him differently.
But, the festive robe in the parable is the heart which believes and does what the words say. A lot of people say they are Christians, but, is that obvious in what they do? Is it as obvious as walking down the street in a tuxedo or a bridal gown? Or are a lot of Christians just wearing ready-made suits, blending in with the crowd?
The fate of the imposter, even the self-convinced one, is the same as that of the turncoat (another clothing image). Which brings us to the closing line. "Many are called, but, few are chosen."
Many are called, in fact all are called. God wants everybody to be at the feast, but, only those in proper attire will be chosen to stay. We're here today because we want to be at the feast. When that invitation comes, we'll want to go. But, we need to look to our wardrobes. Are we wearing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation? If not, we need to take them off the hangers and start trying them on, making sure they fit, and modelling them in obvious ways.
After all, when the invitation comes, we won't want to be caught with our trousers down.
In the Name...