Sunday, October 15, 2017

Transformed by the Banquet: Sermon for Proper 23A, the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Long ago, in a poor country far away, a young woman once approached the wise woman of her village with a question: “What are heaven and hell like?”

“Come, let me show you,” replied the wise woman, and the two walked into the forest, until they came to a house. The wise woman opened the door, and there they saw dozens of people all gathered around a huge table piled high covered with enormous steaming tureens of delicious soup. Yet the people gathered around the table were so malnourished they couldn’t even muster the strength to look in the direction of the door. Then the young woman noticed that the only utensils in the room were spoons with handles that were eight feet long.

“That,” said the wise woman, “is hell.” The young woman’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Now let’s journey a bit further,” said the wise woman.

They walked deeper into the forest, and up to another house. The wise woman opened this door, and there again they saw dozens of people all gathered around a huge table piled high covered with enormous steaming tureens of delicious soup. Once again, the only utensils in the room were spoons with handles that were eight feet long. Yet the people here were laughing and joyous. “Come in!” exclaimed one of them. “Dinner is about to start!”

With some trepidation, the young woman and the wise woman sat down. After saying grace, half the people took a hold of one of the spoons, and then filled it from one of the tureens. Then, in a staggered rhythm, each spoon-holder reached across the table and fed the person across from them. And then each person who was just fed picked up their own spoon and fed the person opposite them. Those who held the spoons chatted merrily with each other while they fed their companions. The young woman and the wise woman, too, were fed until they could eat no more. Eventually, the wise woman took the young woman by the hand and said it was time to leave, and they bid their new friends farewell.

The young woman was stunned. “That was heaven, wasn’t it?” she asked the wise woman, and the wise woman nodded. “I don’t understand! Why was it so different? Both houses had exactly the same tables, the same food, the same spoons!”

“Ah, my child,” said the wise woman. “Heaven is where we feed each other.”

Today, we get the third story Jesus tells to answer the questions the Pharisees and leaders of Jerusalem demand of him to determine his authority to act and teach and heal as he does. Here he uses the image of a wedding feast as a metaphor for God’s kingdom, which Matthew prefers to call the “kingdom of heaven.” I’m going to start right off by being frank: I think our parable from Matthew today has been misused historically when it has been about smugly trying to determine who gets fed and who doesn’t, and who is thrown out into the outer darkness.

But, as this parable makes very clear, that’s not up to us which of those around us get thrown out—it’s up to God.

When we concentrate on the expulsion part of this story, we also get our heads turned around and focus on the wrong things. We forget that gospel values aren’t ever about taking pleasure in the torments of others. We also end up glossing over the images of abundance and welcome that are embedded in this story. We overlook the fact that the king invites EVERYONE in, and that the focus of this parable is a joyous feast where we should hope that everyone welcomes each other, and where everyone invited in is fed and cared for.

Yes, here’s the good news: God calls everyone into God’s kingdom.
And here’s the bad news: God calls EVERYONE into God’s kingdom.

Because “everyone” means everyone: notorious sinners by the standards of Jesus’s time were the people he most hung out with, and when he was questioned about that, he pointed out that doctors don’t go work only among those who are well if they are true to their purpose. God doesn’t just call the godly.

God calls all to the heavenly banquet: prostitutes, con men, drug dealers, thieves, as well as the so-called good and upright folk of the world. They get a place alongside everyone, too. No matter how much that makes US nuts. No matter how much WE want to see these people get thrown into the outer darkness. We want a God who keeps score. Who punishes. Who looses thunderbolts and lightning that are very, very frightening at those we consider to be beneath us.

But that’s not who God is. The writer Anne Lamott once wryly remarked, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” And she’s right.

In our first reading, we see what happens when we make gods for ourselves, and in this gospel we are warned, in a way, against making gods OF ourselves. We don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out. In this parable, one of the many things Jesus is trying to tell us is that God’s grace is there for everyone—not just those who are just like us. It’s at the table that we learn how to love and care for each other, and the healing power that that love can have for all the wounded, sinful places we all carry within us.

Unlike us, God doesn’t hold grudges, and God’s love extends beyond the hurts we so often inflict in our relationship with our Creator and Sustainer, as we see in our first reading this morning. Because we are also those people who make the Golden Calf, as well as those who are called to the banquet. If grace and mercy are there for us, no matter how many times we stumble, grace and mercy are there for everyone.

But this parable also tells us that this banquet brings about transformation on our parts. God expects something from those who accept the invitation: conversion of life to live according to a gospel of abundance. This is hard for most of us, because we live in a world dominated by scarcity—even sometimes, the illusion of scarcity. If we truly give our lives to Christ, though, we give ourselves over to a different vision for how to live together, a vision not based on selfishness or dominance but on mercy and empathy. And there are some who may reject something that alien to our default way of living. It’s so counter-cultural, so mind-blowing, that most of us have to re-dedicate ourselves every day to Christian living.

We want to think that we are among the “elect,” the ones at the top of the mountain, and to buy into that there has to then be people beneath you. But constantly striving and jockeying for position amongst each other is no substitute for real living. It’s also no recipe for loving each other.

As Matthew’s parable reminds us, coming in to the banquet—acknowledging ourselves as Christians, in this case-- is just a preliminary step. Once you’ve come in to the feast, you are expected to put on the garments of love—the same characteristics that Paul lists as necessary to living the faithful life: whatever is true, honorable, just, and pure—and this is about internal purity in the sense of allowing love, not condemnation, to shine out of us. And those characteristics only matter if we honor and celebrate our connectedness with all the others offered a place at the banquet, too.

Here is the connection with our epistle. Simply going to the banquet isn’t enough. To be disciples, we have to also put on the right mindset, the right attitude, and engage in relationship with God and with each other through worship and prayer, and wear it until it is as familiar to us as our skin. The kingdom of heaven is not made according to our own rules, our own calculus of winners and losers. In the kingdom of heaven, we recognize each person as having just as equal a claim to God’s mercy as everyone else because we ourselves have been remade by that abundant grace.

What this means, friends, is a frank assessment of how we answer Jesus’s call to discipleship, healing, and forgiveness, and to repentance and conversion where we have failed to put on the clothing of mercy and love. If we truly want to call ourselves “Christians” in word and deed, we realize being Christian is not just a label, but a way of life. It means looking into the abysses of our hearts and souls and not blinking or excusing away our moral weaknesses, inactions, or failures or taking delight in the failures of others. It’s not possible to be saved by ourselves: salvation comes in the beloved community where we all feed each other, and feel each other’s pain and struggle as deeply as our own. As Anglican theologian N. T. Wright puts it in his commentary on this parable, “God wants us to be grown-up, not babies, and part of being grown up is that we’ve learned that actions have consequences, that moral choices matter.”

Yet Wright resists the interpretation that many evangelicals place upon this parable in their willingness to turn this into what we could call a “clobber passage.” He points out that Jesus’s great gift was meeting people where they were and loving them without condemnation and reservation from the start. Love, not legalism, is the point of the gospel, as both Jesus and Paul insisted, for love has the power to heal where legalism does not. Yet once each person heard Jesus’s invitation of love from God, they still have the choice to accept that invitation or not.

Once we come in to the feast, we are still not done. We are then called to change our lives so that we live according to gospel values rather than our own values—and those values are not turned inward but outward. We are expected to put on the clothing of abundance—both as individuals and as each congregation and as the Big-C Church. After all, a banquet is not a solitary event. A banquet is only a banquet if it forms a community—which is exactly how common meals were understood in the time of Matthew. As the Church, we are called, specifically, not to exclude others from our banquet but live so that we help those around us want to put on their own robe, too.

The Church may bill itself as the representation of God’s banquet—the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s terminology--on earth. That’s beautiful—except for the times when the Church falters in living up to the ideals espoused in the gospel. The fact that we sometimes fail as the Church should surprise no one, since the Church is made up of fallible human beings who do not shed their pain, wounds, or sins at the door, but bring them right on in. After all, this community is where the healing can take place. Jesus’s healing of people’s physical ailments throughout scripture was all about restoring people to relationship. And that is necessary work today as much as it was in Jesus’s time. 

There are times when the Church surrenders to the economy of scarcity on which so much of our world is based. It is at those moments that we have to remember that we as the Church are called to embody that economy of abundance that is the foundation of the gospel of Christ. It means not using our money or power or influence to bludgeon others—whether in our daily lives or in the Church itself. We as the Church can start to embody the kingdom of heaven rather than mirroring the wounds of our society-- IF we’re honest about recognizing the woundedness within ourselves, and become very mindful about how we respond to each other and treat each other as we learn this new language of love and life to which Jesus’s gospel calls us.

Luckily, we can get lots of practice in experiencing the joy of the heavenly banquet. The heart of our weekly lives as Christians centers around a feast we are called to keep together, a joyous lavish feast of thanksgiving we call “the Eucharist.” IF we start by constantly examining the way we treat each other here within our communities of faith, and try to change the ways we relate to each other so that we put on those wedding garments.

Our gathering together at this table is a chance where we get to feed each other by our love and acceptance, by being tender with each other even when we disagree, in realizing that the suspicions that make us miserable out in the world will stink up the place if we drag them inside with us and don’t address them and let love heal them. Instead, by being eager to serve each other, we are called to clothe ourselves in Christ’s love, knowing that it is in community that we are nourished and strengthened to bear that same love out into that darkness until no one is left behind, until the whole world is a banquet, and no one is hungry or lost or discounted.

The demands of love and empathy placed upon us by discipleship should not make us dour or resentful. This yoke is easy, and this burden is light, as Jesus reminds us in a famous passage elsewhere in scripture. This banquet table symbolizes a new community, filled with grace and mercy and abundance, just as a wedding symbolizes the creation of a new household and a new family. God asks only that everyone who answers the invitation realizes that that means not just coming in from the cold, but then putting on the clothing of abundance and true grace and wearing it with joy, and then feeding each other in loving care.


(Preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, at 8:00 and 10:15 am on October 15, 2017.)

Here is a different version of the opening fable, based on the same concept, which has variations in numerous cultures. This one was created by Caritas International:

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