Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sermon: 12 October 2008

Sermon: 22 Pentecost (12 October 2008)
(Exodus 32:1-14/Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23/Philippians 4:1-9/Matthew 22:1-14)
Three Weddings and a Banquet

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What do the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised – those with little reason or means to celebrate – actually celebrate? Survival surely ranks high on the list – a full belly, a roof, clean water when these are available; most of the basics we take for granted are cause for celebration when you often do not have them. But beyond these fundamentals, what does the community gather to celebrate? Weddings – births, too, of course, but in the normal course of things weddings first. A wedding is an act of celebration, yes, but it is an act of defiance, too. No matter what powers try to dominate – personal or impersonal, human or natural – love will not be subdued and life will find a way. And that defiance, that hope, that promise must express itself in celebration. What better occasion than a wedding?

A peasant wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee was the occasion for Jesus’ first miracle. Sign is the word John uses instead of miracle, and a better word it is. A sign points beyond itself to a greater reality, a deeper truth. And when Jesus transformed water into wine – transformed shame and disaster into wonderment and joy – at this wedding, it was indeed a sign: a sign of new creation, a sign of jubilee, a sign that God – in and through Jesus – was sorting out and making right all that was wrong in his creation. John says the wedding – this occasion of great celebration – happened on the third day, in clear anticipation of that greatest of celebrations that would happen on another third day: the resurrection and the dawn of a new creation. From this time forth, we must see every wedding as a sign pointing to the justice and mercy and power of God, to new life in Jesus.

A wedding is also an affair of honor: so say the invitations.

The parents of the bride and groom
request the honor of your presence
at the marriage of their daughter and son
and at the reception, following.

It’s a very nice thing, isn’t it, to think that someone would be honored by your presence. And it’s an honor to receive such an invitation: to think that when a family sat down to list the most important people in its life you came to mind and you made the list. There is honor all around, flowing in every direction. So when you receive an invitation to a wedding, you rearrange your schedule, buy a present, and have your best dress or suit cleaned. You wouldn’t dream of not going.

Everything we know of weddings makes Jesus’ parable of the kingdom all the more appropriate and shocking.

It is like this in the kingdom of heaven: a man – a king – prepared a wedding feast for his son.

If a peasant wedding is cause for celebration, how much more the wedding of the king’s son and heir: all the elements of joy, hope, sign, and honor magnified. While the peasants might not – almost certainly would not – be invited, they might yet hope that the king’s joy would result in largesse that would spill over into their lives: increased sales for local merchants, a holiday, a brief reprieve from taxes – something, anything to cause the entire populace to join the celebration. And for those who received invitations? What honor to be the invited guest of the king at the wedding of his son, the future king. But – here’s the first shocking twist in the parable – none of the invited guests rearranged their schedules, none bought a present, not a single one had their best robe cleaned – no one acted honored at all. And in rejecting the great honor accorded them, they greatly dishonored their king.

Not only did they decline the invitation, they rebelled against the king by abusing the servants sent to announce the wedding: they seized the slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king responded with devastating judgment: he sent troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

This part of Jesus’ parable is directed pointedly to the chief priests and elders of the people, those who now stand in the temple questioning his authority. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, generations of prophets invited, beckoned Israel to the wedding. And now the son himself, the one in whose honor the banquet is prepared, appears and calls once again to Israel and its priests: “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, went away, and laid plans to kill the son. And now they will be visited with the king’s judgment and wrath in the person of Titus, commander of the Roman armies, who will come with his troops, destroy those murderers, and burn their city. This part of the parable is pure judgment upon those who were called again and again, but who refused the invitation and rebelled against the king.

But the next section of the parable – well, that’s gospel, good news for the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised – for those with no reason to expect an invitation to the wedding banquet of the son.

Then [the king] 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.”

Wall Street wasn’t worthy; now, Main Street gets its chance: ordinary folk like you and me; people down on their luck like those served at the St. Demetrios soup kitchen; the despised and cast out like tax collectors, prostitutes, and drug dealers; the straight and the gay; the citizens and the illegal aliens. Come one, come all, come to the wedding banquet of the king: everyone received the invitation. And they came, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. This is the second twist in the parable: undeserving common folk receiving the undeserved uncommon grace of an invitation to the wedding banquet of the son.

The common folk and the rabble standing in the temple with Jesus that day surely recognize this parable as a description of Jesus’ own ministry: a ministry opposed by the scribes, Pharisees, elders, and priests, but embraced by the masses. They surely feel vindicated, until Jesus twists the parable yet a third and final time. Not all those invited – not all those compelled to come – are allowed to stay. For the king noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe. The king had him bound, hand and foot, and cast out into the outer darkness – a place of weeping, and wailing and gnashing teeth: a place of grace squandered. So, Jesus ends the parable with a word of caution: For many are called, but few are chosen.

This is the first of three wedding banquets we will visit this morning: a warning in the past, a cautionary tale of invitations refused, of judgment, of uncommon grace toward common people, and of grace squandered.

The second wedding banquet is not parable, but vision. Though seen and recorded only a generation after Jesus spoke his parable, this vision and this banquet are somehow beyond time, though they almost surely lie in our future. They are also beyond our realm, for they surely lie in heaven.

Then I [John] heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,

For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen,
bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Rev 19:5-9, NRSV).

This wedding banquet is the full dawn of new creation, when the sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings, when God’s will is truly done on earth as in heaven, when earth and heaven are one. This wedding banquet celebrates that time when

the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:3b-4),

and all things have been made new.

And who is invited to this great wedding banquet? Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, only those who have conquered through the victory of the Lamb, only those who have held fast to the faith and have clothed themselves in fine linen – the righteous deeds of the saints.

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8, NRSV).

You’ve been to weddings; you know the buildup of excitement. The parents of the bride and groom are ushered to their seats of honor. The attendants process two-by-two – brides’ maid and groomsman – then the flower girl and ring bearer. And then there is that moment of stillness, of breath held, of time suspended waiting for the first notes of the “Wedding March” and the appearance of the bride. All stand, all strain for a first glimpse of the bride in all her glory.

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel; like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels.

And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:9b-12a, 21-27, NRSV).

Is ever a woman more beautiful than as a bride? Is ever a bride more beautiful than the holy city, new Jerusalem? But what, after all, is a city? Not bricks and mortar, gates and streets, -- but people. The Lamb died and rose again not for bricks and mortar, gates and streets, but for a holy people, for the children of God once ruined by the fall but now redeemed and recreated in and through the blood of the Lamb who was slain but who is now alive forever. Alleluia. We, the guests unexpectedly invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. We, whose names unexpectedly appear in the Lamb’s book of life, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. We, who deserve nothing but to be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, turn out to be the bride of the Lamb. What grace is this! What glory, that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ turns out to be the bride of the Lamb.

This is the second of three wedding banquets we will visit this morning: a vision for the future – a glorious tale of invitations accepted; of vindication; of amazing, uncommon grace toward common people; and of grace embraced and victorious.

One wedding banquet past, one yet to come: the wedding banquet we consider now is present. It is a small thing, really, easily overlooked. The meal is simple – just bread and wine. The guests bring no presents, just their bodies which they present as living sacrifices, made holy and acceptable – a reasonable act of service. They come at the invitation of the king’s son, whose banquet this is, wearing linen robes he has provided – robes paradoxically make white by water and blood. There is little pomp, and seemingly little happens: a story is told; prayers are offered; bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given to all; wine is taken, blessed, poured out, and given to all. That is all, but that is everything. When we break the bread and lift the cup in this wedding banquet, the barriers of time and space crumble and heaven and earth become one at this table. God’s future – the wedding feast of the Lamb in the holy city, New Jerusalem – comes rushing backwards into our present and we are there feasting with thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. It is Jesus himself who presides at the banquet. It is Jesus who feeds us – who feeds us upon himself. “Lift up your hearts,” the liturgy bids us. “We lift them to the Lord,” we respond, and it is true: at this moment we are with the Lord at the wedding banquet which was, and is, and is to come. And we are assured in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the body of the Son, and heirs of the eternal kingdom. We are assured in these holy mysteries that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We are assured in these holy mysteries that we are even now at the wedding banquet of the Son.

Three wedding banquets: a cautionary tale of judgment and grace, a vision of victory and promise, a foretaste of that banquet we shall share in the holy city, New Jerusalem, at the wedding of the Lamb and his bride, the church. The invitation still goes forth. All is ready; come to the feast. Amen.

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