Responding to the Invitation, a sermon by the Rev. Nancy Vogele

This sermon was delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017 by the Rev. Nancy Vogele at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Campus Ministry – Hanover, NH.  The gospel reading was Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to the people 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, mistreated 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.” (Matthew 22:1-14)

I’m so glad today’s Gospel text is an easy one.  Not!  What are we to make of this parable that Jesus tells with all its violent and exclusionary imagery?  I think a little unpacking of it is in order.

First, parables tell a truth.  But this is not to be confused with saying that parables are true in the sense that they are talking about something that actually happened.  You might even say that parables tell a truth by pushing the bounds of truth.

Second, Jesus told his parables in the context of historical and cultural references that we may not catch because we are not familiar with the history of culture in which he was living or out of which Matthew was writing his gospel.   It is important to know that Matthew’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century and Matthew’s community, comprised of Jewish Christians found itself by this time in conflict with the synagogue which was beginning to say that Jewish Christians were not a part of Judaism.  Matthew’s Gospel was also written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As a result, many Jews, Christian Jews included, fled taking their faith with them.  For the Jewish Christians, this led to Gentiles hearing the message and converting.

All these references show up in the telling of this parable with its themes of invitation and rejection, destruction, violence, all leading to a second invitation to a wider audience.

But, even given these historical and cultural undertones, it is not a realistic story that Jesus tells.  It is full of absurdities – even for a parable. The king goes to war with those who reject his invitation all at the same time he is preparing the wedding banquet and keeping the food warm.  Later in the parable, the king is upset that someone isn’t wearing a wedding garment.  I spent a lot of time researching why supposedly everyone else had a wedding garment and he didn’t.  And commentators go out of their way to give reasons.  And then it dawned on me. Of course the guy isn’t dressed properly – he was pulled in off the street at the last minute! This parable is not about finding explanations about the details but hearing the message that Jesus was trying to tell…and to a hostile audience it is important to remember.

Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, during the final week of his life, knowing full well that they were trying to find any way possible to entrap him, have him arrested – in short, to get rid of him and his challenging preaching and presence.  To them, Jesus was a threat to their influence over the people; he was a threat to their power; he was a threat to the whole system they have built over years and years that allowed them to have a corner on this whole God thing.  Jesus has been sparring with them and challenging everything they stood for and, perhaps knowing that he might die soon, he was doing it with every fiber of his being.

All the King ever wanted was to throw a party for his son…to celebrate and rejoice and to have others celebrate and rejoice with him.

But there’s a glitch – an unheard of glitch for a king: all the invited guests – the dignitaries and high society folks – won’t come. The King tries again, they still refuse.  So the King has his slaves go out into the streets and invite any and all to the feast.  And the banquet hall is full and the celebration begins.

But when the king comes into the party, he sees someone without a wedding garment even though everyone else has one.  And so he asks him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

It reminds me of when my dad and mom put on an office party years ago.  My dad had built up his design firm and it included all up and coming young designers.  They were very cool and they knew it.  They showed up dressed completely inappropriately for this dinner which upset both my parents.  My mom had worked really hard at preparing an amazing feast and their attire was a slap in her face.  So much so that my dad talked to the designers the next day and explained the importance of dressing properly when invited to the boss’s house for a party.

It’s like my mom’s adage, when you have been invited over to someone’s house for a party and don’t know what you’re supposed to wear, when in doubt over dress.

Jesus is not saying that entrance to the kingdom of God requires a dress code, per se, just as we don’t say you have to wear a suit and tie or a fancy dress to come to church.

I have been among you Lutherans long enough to know it’s pure grace that gets us here.

But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap.

What we want all too often is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  And cheap grace, he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Cheap grace [he writes] means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.  Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin…

Cheap grace [Bonhoeffer continues] is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism with church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

In contrast, Bonhoeffer wrote that the Confessing Church was fighting for costly grace:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock…It is costly because it costs a [person] his [or her] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us…

Bonhoeffer continues, “Costly grace confront us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.  It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.  Grace is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

It is by grace that we are here, but that doesn’t mean nothing is expected of us.

If we are honest, we want God to accept us as we are, period.

That’s like going to physical therapy without doing the exercises assigned to you. Here you are, knowing you have an injury that needs fixing and you are going to your appointments and paying the copays, but not benefitting from any of it because you don’t want to do the exercises the therapist gave you.  And you’re upset your ankle isn’t getting any better.  You might even blame the physical therapist for that.  But what you are doing is wasting everyone’s time – yours and the physical therapist’s.

And when we share the gospel, we are tempted to offer cheap grace – like a physical therapist who says you don’t have to do any of the exercises between appointments or that you don’t have to come to the appointment at all if you don’t feel like it.
We know that’s not true.  We do it nonetheless.  All too often our desire – our need – to have people want to be a part of our fellowship has caused our hospitality or “radical” welcome to be more like cheap grace.  And by “we” I mean the mainstream church.  The Church is so afraid of newcomers and guests not coming back that we don’t preach a Gospel that, while grace filled, is costly and demanding if we are to embrace it.

There is a cost – why else would Jesus say to his followers, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).  But he also says, “I have come that you may have life and life abundant.” Not this so-called life that the world would have us believe is so great – a big house, fancy cars, expensive vacations, power and prestige.  What the world doesn’t say is that these come at a cost – many times costing us our relationships and healthy and values and the well-being of others and creation.  Jesus had something to say about that, too: “What profit a person to gain the whole world yet lose their soul?”  Jesus offers us real life – abundant life.

God is always inviting us to the Kingdom’s party.  We can refuse, but those of us here have at least shown up.  So let us show up and engage.  Get into it.  Ask questions.  Test everything and hold fast that which is good.  Challenge. Support. Give.  In short, be in relationship – something the guest refused to do when he didn’t answer the King. And all that leads to is outer darkness.

No, I’m not going to cast you out – neither will anyone else do that.  No, by refusing to engage, we are casting ourselves away.  We are like the patient who won’t do the exercises prescribed in order to get better.  Worse yet, we are like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to enter the party the father has thrown for his other son.  The father goes out to meet the elder son and pleads with him to join the party but, in the end, it’s up to the elder son.  Will he come in from the literal outer darkness or will he stay in his self-imposed hell?

Many were called to the wedding banquet but very few chose to come.

You and I have been invited as well. Will we choose to come?  Will we choose to be “all in”?

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