The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
11 October 2020
Isaiah 25: 1-9
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Philippians 4: 1-9
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
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.’
Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind
and reaching out to that which is before,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
God, our judge and saviour,
teach us to be open to your truth
and to trust in your love,
that we may live each day
with confidence in the salvation which is given
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Everyone loves a party; a chance to enjoy good company, good food, perhaps a drink or two – a real celebration. Particularly so, perhaps, if the invitation to the party comes from someone rather special. Or so you might think; there may be many reasons why we might actually want to give the party a miss – I haven’t got a thing to wear, I don’t really know anyone there, it’s just not my scene. But all the same, if the invitation were from the king, you’d have to have a pretty good reason not to go, wouldn’t you? There’s a legend in my family that in the late 1950s, when my father was a young army officer from the north of England, he and my mother were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. My dad turned it down, and it’s said that mum never forgave him for that. They’re not around to ask any more but the legend has it that my father just wasn’t one for kow-towing to the great and the good; maybe so, or perhaps, because they were a very poor young couple, he felt that they wouldn’t be able to afford an outfit, with hat and gloves, suitable for his beautiful wife to wear on such an occasion. Whatever the reason, the chance to meet Her Majesty was passed by and would not come again.
In our Gospel reading today (Matthew 21: 1-14) a king is also hosting a party and inviting guests. This story is a parable and one of the series beginning with the phrase, ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like this.’ There is a very similar parable to this one in the Gospel of Luke (14: 15-24). There are some interesting differences between the two stories, but it seems very likely to me that they are both telling the same parable and making similar points. The scene in the Matthew version we heard today is more intense than the Luke; in Luke, ‘a man was giving a dinner party’; in Matthew it is the king’s party and, more than that, it is the wedding party for the king’s own son. Higher stakes here. The storyboards are the same: a rich host has a list of names to invite to his big party but, one by one, they drop out, make their excuses and turn their back on the invitation. Again, the Matthew version is more intense; some of the invited guests don’t just make their excuses, they attack and kill the servants who bring the invitation from the king. In both stories, the angry and disappointed host then opens his doors to the hoi-polloi, bringing in strangers from the streets, those who would never have been thought worthy of such an honour, just the ordinary folk. The Matthew version has quite a kicker at the end: the king sees one of the company of ordinary folk ‘not dressed for a wedding’; when asked why this should be, the guest is unable answer and so is tied up and hurled into the outer darkness. Not an easy message, this one.
So, what is happening in these stories? How is the kingdom of Heaven like this? When a guest list is being drawn up for a party, who usually gets invited? Family and friends, of course. In the parables, the host or king is clearly God himself and so the first invitees to the party are God’s family and friends – to the hearers of the story, this would be predominantly the religious orders of the Hebrew people. In Matthew’s version, the party is to celebrate the wedding the king’s own son – clearly Christ; the wedding symbolism is a way of showing the deep binding relationship that God has in mind between his son and the world. In this version, the messengers carrying the invitations are murdered by some of the invitees; this may be telling of the prophets of God who fell foul of the authorities of their day. In its gentler way, the Luke version makes the same point: those who should have been closest to God rejected the invitation to His celebration. If God’s ancient family and friends, wouldn’t come to Christ’s wedding, who was to come? Everybody else – the irreligious, the fallen; in ancient Jewish terms, the unclean. There is a wonderful foretaste of this in our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 25:1-9), particularly in verses 6 to 9, one of the most moving messages of hope in all of scripture: God will prepare a banquet and it will be for all peoples and all the nations. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the reproach of his people (in our Gospel stories, those who refused the invitation) from the whole earth. All, every, the whole. What a vision! What a hope!
But let’s move from Isaiah’s wonderful vision, back to our Gospel parables. One of the techniques useful in trying to understand the effect and intent of any biblical passage is to ask ourselves, “Where am I in this story?”, trying out each of the roles in turn, seeing which ones seem to fit us and to learn from playing that game. I guess that the natural role we see for ourselves, and may be intended to see for ourselves, is that of the newcomers, the outsiders, the grubby and disreputable, the ordinary folk who flooded into the big celebration, delighted and amazed to be there. That chimes with the Isaiah: all peoples, all nations are welcome at God’s banquet; that’s got to include us, hasn’t it? I do hope so.
But, in looking at where we might fit into the story, I’d like to ask you to consider the advantages that we here this morning have had in our relationship with God and with His great celebration. Many of us may be cradle-Christians, born into a Christian home, baptised and raised in the faith. Others may have come to faith later but we’re all rather familiar and comfortable with the liturgy, the concepts and the rhythms of ‘being church’ in the Anglican tradition. How different and difficult the whole of ‘being church’ might look to those in the streets, those who were called in from the outside. If we were looking at ourselves through their eyes, might we not look very much like the A-list, the friends and family of God, those who were invited first? In that case, I guess it all depends on whether we really are accepting that invitation, living as if our life with God really is a celebration and a great party. And I’d just like to throw in another uncomfortable thought; remember the poor guy who came along to the wedding with the rest of the great unwashed but who was spotted for not being dressed for a wedding? Tied up and hurled out, he was. Now, I don’t know about you, but I often feel as if I’m not wearing the right clothes for the occasion. We may all have had that recurring nightmare of being at some high formal occasion in our pyjamas, or worse. I can’t help but feel that, if I can avoid being part of the A-list invitees at risk of refusing the call, I might just be this unfortunate guy who didn’t have his wedding suit when the unexpected invitation came and was unable to explain himself.
So, we have a wonderful and moving promise of God’s great banquet for all peoples but with the chilling suggestion that there are at least two ways in which we can miss out on the big party. Whatever are we to do? There is a clue hidden in our third reading today (Phil. 4:1-9), part of Paul’s farewell message to the Christians in Philippi: ‘And now, my friends, all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is admirable and gracious – fill all your thoughts with these”. If we want to accept the invitation to God’s great party, we need to look at life as if it IS God’s great party. All that is true, noble, just, pure… well, there’s plenty around to fill our eyes and mind which is none of those things. We know that we’re living through terribly troubling times but it seems that our presence in God’s great party needs us to look around us with new eyes, to look for God’s many small everyday invitations to share His life, looking for and giving thanks for the bright, the true and the marvellous in our world and in our lives. In this way, we can weave our own wedding clothes around us, just in case we unexpectedly get an invitation to a very special party.