10/12/14 Sermon (October 12, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:10 PM by David Hawkins

The Discipline of Invitation

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

“Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’

But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

“Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Sermon: "The Discipline of Invitation"             Rev. David Hawkins

Two weeks ago, we began a sermon series based on a series of parables that Jesus told in order to answer to a question put to him by the Temple Priests in Jerusalem. You may remember this incident happened during passover week that began with Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, accompanied by crowds waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna.”

A few days after this  triumphal entry, Jesus went into the temple, the center of Jewish life, the central bank, the central church, the dwelling place of God, and caused a scene, turning tables, shouting at the money lenders. I think we can understand why the temple priests are anxious. Their position in the community is threatened. The political situation is tense. Their reputations are at stake. The people are talking, and it looks like everything is falling apart. It’s their job to restore order. They have got to get this situation under control.

And so they bring Jesus before them, and ask him what on earth makes him think that all this drama is justified. Just who does he think he is? What gives him the right to come in here and rock the boat?

In response to their questions, Jesus tells a series of three stories. The first story challenged us to think about the authority we have as Christians. The second challenged us to think about what doing the work of the kingdom of heaven really means, and today, we listen in as he tells a final story that challenges us to consider what it means to be invited into the kingdom of heaven.

A king throws a party, a wedding party in honor of his son. Back in the day, it was common for an invitation to be given twice, once way ahead of time, and then again, shortly before the party starts, to remind the guests that it’s time. In our story, the first invitations have gone out, and now it’s time for the reminder. The King sends his people to gather those who have been invited, but something has changed.  The guests that he expects, the ones he had invited earlier don’t show up.

The king is perplexed. He had no idea that their relationship had changed so much, that his friends would completely ignore his invitation. And so he sent another reminder, and still no response.

And this makes the king very angry. Angry enough that he tears up the original invitations. These people are dead to him. He starts over from scratch. He tells his staff to go round up everybody they find. Good people, bad people, righteous, unrighteous. Whoever they find, bring them in. It doesn’t matter what they look like, how they dress, how much money they have, what language they speak, or how smart they are. It doesn’t matter what color they are, or how they act, or what they think. Whoever they find, bring them in. It’s the world’s biggest tailgate party, and everybody is invited, and it doesn’t matter what team you cheer for, Texas Tech, or UT, or Oklahoma. Dallas or New York or Denver. It doesn’t matter.   

As we discussed last week, it would be easy to dismiss this story as applying only to the Jews, that Matthew is trying to tell us that the Hebrews have ignored God’s invitation, and are therefore shut out forever from God’s favor. But this is a dangerous interpretation for many reasons.

A theology that assumes that the Jews are forever alienated from God denies the possibility of reconciliation, it denies the everlasting nature of the covenants that God makes with his people, and if God has forever abandoned the Jews, why should Christians have anything to do with them? In fact, if God has declared that the Jews are his enemy, then it only makes sense that Jews are the enemy of Christians as well. And this kind of thinking has led to centuries of anti-semitism, persecution, torture, and ultimately to the kind of thinking that made the Holocaust inevitable.

And so, we need to rethink the way we hear this parable. We need to remember that Jesus is telling this story to a particular group of people, the temple priests, the religious leaders, church officials, at a particular time of political upheaval, after being accused of extending God’s welcome, mercy and forgiveness to the wrong kinds of people.

And this brings our story right into our own times, doesn’t it? Because when it comes down to it, things haven’t changed that much. Religious leaders are still arguing about this issue of extending God’s welcome, mercy and forgiveness to the wrong kinds of people, both inside and outside of the church.

The hard reality is, there are plenty of scripture passages that support a narrow religiosity. There are plenty of scriptures that we can point to if we want to exclude certain people from our fellowship. And I’ll bet that the temple priests knew those scriptures pretty well. This is why they just couldn’t understand why Jesus would waste his time with these undeserving sinners.

Why would Jesus waste his time with prostitutes, with tax collectors, with bar owners, with gluttons, with adulterers, with sinners of all kinds? Why would Jesus waste God’s grace welcoming those who are beyond redemption, forgiving those who are not worthy of forgiveness? Why would Jesus surround himself with these people? Why is he inviting them to church, why does he think that God would have anything to do with them? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that we should have nothing to do with these people?
And these are the same questions the church is asking itself today. Who do we invite into the kingdom? Do they have to look like us, talk like us, think like us? Do they have to have the same education, the same viewpoints, the same sexual orientation? Do they have to vote the same way,  join the same clubs, read the same magazines, listen to the same talk shows?

We live in an era in which all of us, young, old, conservative, progressive, geeks, goths, hipsters, Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos, rich, poor, middle class, educated, street smart, on and on and on, are incredibly adept at separating ourselves into camps, into little islands of shared values; and we are really, really good at using the Bible to justify it.

And I can’t help but think that our scriptural reasons for building walls and shutting the door to certain kinds of people who are not like us would sound very familiar to Jesus. And even worse, I have a sinking suspicion that he would have the same kind of reaction to our reasons for the divisions we insist on creating as he does toward the temple priests.  I’m pretty sure he would have little use for the way we theologically support our exclusion of certain groups of people from God’s grace.

If there’s one thing we have learned about the Kingdom of Heaven, is that it is pretty big. God’s table is pretty big. God’s house is pretty big. The party that God is throwing is pretty big. There’s room for all the birds in the air, and all the fish of the  sea, and lots and lots of people. It’s not our job to decide who is supposed to be there. It’s our job to go out and invite everyone that we see to come with us. Especially those that society has decided don’t fit  Especially those that society has decided are not worthy of love, are not worthy of grace, are not worthy of being welcomed and included.

Now I’m sure the some of you have noticed that I didn’t quite finish the story. That I didn’t make it all the way to the end. And you are are right. I left out the part at the end, where the king notices that there is someone there who is not dressed in a wedding robe. And this is a hard part of the story to understand.

Some scholars spend lots of energy connecting this imagery to the idea that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are clothed with a new robe, and I suppose that there is some merit in this metaphor. The problem is, this interpretation is based on Jesus’s death and resurrection, but Jesus is telling this parable before he actually dies and is resurrected. There’s a timing issue. Other scholars have gone with the idea that it’s the fruits of our new life in Christ that is symbolized by the wedding robe. And I guess that you could go with that, if you need to. It’s sounds like works righteousness to me, but if it works for you, then go ahead.

The problem for me with all of these interpretations is that they leave out an important part of the story. The issue is not so much what the robe signifies. The issue is that it is the King who makes the decision. It’s not one of his servants that comes up to the guy without the robe and points it out, and shows him the door. It’s not one of the servants that throws the guy out because he’s not wearing the right clothes.

And this is what it comes down to. Those of you who have sat through more than one of my sermons know that I have tendency to preach the bigness of God’s love. My theology is as broad as I can make it. But this scripture reminds us that the decision of who God accepts at the table is God’s and God’s alone. We don’t have a say in it. I would love to be able to say that everyone is saved, that everyone is going to heaven. But God is still the one who makes that choice. And I have the feeling that we will be surprised when we finally sit down at the banquet feast and see who is sitting beside us.

In the meantime, we are given the commission to go out and invite. Not to go out and analyze, not to go out and evaluate, not to go out and pre-qualify. To go out with the expectation that everyone is invited to the party. My hope is that everyone here feels the same way, that everyone here wants everybody that we come into contact with to be saved. And that’s not a bad thing. I think it’s OK for us to have good hope for all. In fact, I think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t that kind of hope.

But ultimately, it’s not our choice. We don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out. We can argue all day long about what the robe means, but it really doesn’t matter. Because it’s God’s robe, not ours. We didn’t choose it, we didn’t make it, we don’t get to hand it out, and we don’t get to take it back. And especially, we don’t get to critique the fabric, the length, the color, the cut, or whether or not it fits our own sense of fashion. The robe is given by God, for God’s own reasons, at God’s own invitation, at God’s own time and place of choosing. And God is the only one who can take it back. We have absolutely nothing at all to say about it.

And this is good news, for us, and for everyone we know. We are not the robe police. Our job is not to try to figure out if the robe is going to fit someone else. Our job is just to invite everyone we know to the party, and give them a big hug when they walk in that front door.

Thanks be to God. Amen.