Sunday, October 12, 2014

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:4-13
Matthew 22:1-14

I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.

We had one of those online coupons that you can buy to have a meal at a discount price. There are several different types, but they usually cost approximately the price of an entree and then give you an equal amount for free. This particular coupon was for a steakhouse that costs too much money; we never would have gone without the coupon. As it was, it still cost us more money than we usually would spend on dinner, unless we were going out for a special occasion. We forgot we had the coupon and we had to use it quickly, so we ended up with a fancy meal on a regular day.

Now, we can be absolutely satisfied with a meal at a more practically priced restaurant. The food is usually pretty good and the service pleasant. We don’t need to spend our grocery money for a week to be filled. However, everything was excellent; it was worth the money. The steak, as they say, “was like butter.” It was so tender and tasty; it melted in our mouths. The side dish was delicious and the desert was a wonderful finish to the meal. The cost was too high, but it made an average Thursday night special.

I thought about that meal as I was reading through today’s scriptures, which focus on the great banquet which our Father is preparing for us in heaven. Both Isaiah and Matthew talk about this feast, a wedding feast that will be filled with an abundance of good food. I’m sure that whatever God has waiting will be better than even the best, most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten. My mouth waters in expectation.

I think it is interesting that the scriptures talk about it being a feast like a banquet. I have some memories of those, too. When I was still a teenager, I traveled with a group for a week, visiting cities around our state to introduce our organization to places that would benefit from having us around. We were fed well during our trip, hosted at banquet feasts every day by the local groups who invited us to visit. We didn’t have steak. We mostly had ham; ham is easy to fix, at that time it was relatively inexpensive. The side dishes that go with ham are easy to prepare. The people who prepared the food did a good job; the food was satisfying. It was never fantastic, however. The ham was usually a little dry, the side dishes were not quite hot and fresh. Don’t get me wrong, we were thankful and we were filled, but that’s what I think about when I think about a feast. And God’s feast will not just serve a hundred or so; it will be a feast for all who have waited for God’s salvation. How can He possibly serve so many a feast so great?

He can because He is God. The feast will be great because He will be celebrating the marriage of His Son. It is not a normal wedding, like those we’ve attended. This is the consummation of all His promises, the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the world, as His bride the Church is fully and completely made one with Him. Death will be swallowed up, tears will be dried. We will have reason to celebrate and this feast is not a party that will end; it will last for eternity as we dwell in heaven with our Father and our Lord Christ forever.

Isaiah writes, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Jehovah; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all believers—past, present and future—into His body, the Church. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation.

It seems unbelievable to me sometimes, but there are those who will reject the Lord. There are those who will not respond to the invitation to come to the feast. This is what Jesus is telling the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. This parable follows the ones from the past few weeks. Two weeks ago we were reminded that those who respond to God’s promises will be blessed, but those who say they believe but do not act will be left behind. Last we the lesson showed what will happen to those who violently reject God’s call to active, living faith. We know from the text that Jesus was speaking to the Jewish leaders; even they knew they were the ones who were being targeted at the time. However, these parables are as relevant today for those who continue to say one thing but do another and those who reject God’s call.

This week God offers an invitation. Isn’t it amazing how patient and purposeful He is with His people? Even as they were trying to find ways to arrest Jesus, He was still trying to get them to see the truth. He tells them the kingdom of heaven is like the wedding feast given by a king for his son. The invitations went out, and like those who said “Yes” but did not do what they promised, the guests refused to come. More servants were sent and ignored. Like the tenants in the vineyard, some of the invited guests even killed the king’s servants. In both the previous stories, Jesus pointed toward those who were deemed unworthy of God’s grace as being the recipients of His promises because they proved faithful in the end. The same is true in today’s passage, where the king rejected those who rejected him and invited anyone willing to come. “Go ye therefore unto the partings of the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage feast.” The servants went out and invited all those they found, good and bad. The wedding hall was full.

This text has been used historically to prove God’s rejection of His chosen people, but we need to be careful to think of ourselves as greater than those chief priests and Pharisees who knew Jesus was talking about them. Jesus is addressing anyone who thinks they are blessed because of their own righteousness rather than God’s grace. This is made even clearer in the final verses of today’s passage. In it, Jesus describes a man who did come to the wedding feast, but who did not dress in the robe given by the King.

We do not follow this tradition in our society, but in those days the host gave clean robes to the guests. They had traveled far on dusty roads. The robes were a gift from the host, so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. It showed a lack of respect for the host and for the gift to not refuse to wear the robe. It is suggested that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his ‘grime.’ But we must be careful how much credence we put to that idea. There are many who think that none are welcome who have not yet become righteous according to a set of rules. They say that the guest was one who was still a sinner. Yet, every guest in that room still had the dust and dirt from the road; it was simply covered by the wedding garment. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he rejected the gift that had been given.

Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” We tend to read this with some sense of haughtiness, since we who are believers consider ourselves amongst the chosen. We also deem ourselves as ‘one of the few,’ even separated from others who are counted among the believers. We think we are special, set aside because of our gifts and abilities rather than because of God’s grace. It is easy for us to think the verse refers to those who had been invited but who rejected the call to the banquet.

But the verse does not seem to fit in this story. After all, it comes just after a brief aside in which Matthew discusses one guest who has not put on the wedding garments. Only one guest is kicked out, only one guest is sent to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Of the many who entered, only one is removed. I don’t think Matthew meant to say that the one sent out is the ‘one chosen.’ Instead, we are given something to think about. The person thrown out of the party had entered. He had accepted the invitation and was let in to enjoy the feast. But there was something he did not do. He did not wear the wedding garments.

So, as we consider this story we ponder who fits the characters in this story: who refused to come, who were the ones who came and wore the garment and who came but refused the gift. We might automatically assume that we are one of the “few chosen” but we must be careful not to base that judgment on our own righteousness. We are welcome into the banquet is wholly based on God’s invitation and His gift. If we expect to enjoy the banquet based on our own good works, we will be sadly mistaken. It is only by the gift of the wedding robe, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that we will be received at the great and glorious banquet which God is planning for us.

The scriptures today are difficult because they can lead to some misunderstandings about God’s grace. Isaiah says that God will “make unto all peoples a feast of fat things” and “wipe away tears from off all faces,” which might lead to some to suggest that this text proves the idea of Universalism. Then we have the problem of the opposite end of the spectrum in the text from Matthew, where “For many are called, but few chosen,” leaving us with the assumption that God is picky about who He will let into heaven, thus causing us to reject those who don’t think deserve an invitation.

They are difficult, too, because we know that we can’t enjoy the great and promised feast without God’s grace, and yet there seems to be a call to action which is required to be welcome. How do we juxtapose these seemingly opposite ideas? What does God require from us?

The Oxford philosophy exam normally requires an eight page essay answer, studded with source material, quotes and analytical reasoning. But one student handed the following back and aced the exam: Oxford Examination Board 1987 Essay Question: 1.1a What is courage? (50 Marks) Answer: This is courage.”

Most of the students went into that exam worried about the question and whether they could come up with eight pages of essay. They were probably given the question ahead of time so that they could be prepared with source materials, and yet they probably spent all the preparation worrying about whether they could come up with an answer that would satisfy the professor. Could they even write eight pages in the allotted time? Would they get a good enough grade? How will this test affect their grade point average?

One student went a different direction. Instead of working hard to come up with a dozen sources, pre-planning the essay and worrying about the test, he or she came up with a brilliant answer. It was courageous to just write, “This is courage.” What is courageous about not doing the work? Courage is trusting that the professor will see the brilliance and humor in the short but powerful answer. It is courageous to do something different even if there is some risk involved. It is courageous to face a difficult situation without worry.

The second lesson text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of my favorite bible passages. In it, Paul tells us what the Christian life looks like; he shows us what is required. Let’s be clear here, though: these are not acts or works that will get us that invitation to the great heavenly feast. This is how we live as members of Christ’s body. Faith is not enough; faith demands that we do.

We don’t hear what comes before our passage, an entreaty to two women of faith who have come into some sort of disagreement. They are fellow workers, invited to the feast and welcomed with the gift of the robe. They love the Lord, but have a difference of opinion about something. We have all experienced this in some way or another; after all, the church is filled with fallible human beings. Our disagreements are often silly, yet they can be blown to outrageous proportions. Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” He uses this encouragement in many of his letters, reminding the Christians to have the mind of Christ, agreeing with His Word and living the life that God calls Christians to live.

Despite the disagreements that we will have with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can be one body. We will disagree about politics and about the mission and ministry of our churches. We are a divided people, unable to agree about much. When we begin to discuss real issues, we become separated from one another, breaking the bonds of brotherhood and peace. Each side is passionate about their opinion and we are willing to fight for what we believe to be right and true. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. Things haven’t changed. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.

Paul goes on to describe the life that God has called us together to live.

“Rejoice always!” Impossible, we say. If our life was filled with fancy dinners on average Thursdays, perhaps we could be happy all the time. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. As a matter of fact, it is important to hear this encouragement in context. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” This is not about being happy. It is not about walking around with a smile on your face or laughter on your tongue. It is about rejoicing in the Lord. It is about trusting God and knowing that no matter our circumstances, He is with us. This is living in the promise of that great and promised feast on a daily basis, enjoying that which we have today because it has come from the hand of our Father in heaven. We might not be eating the best steak, but we have food and drink and a roof over our heads. We have love and breath. We have faith, that great gift of God, and we are clothed in His righteousness. We have one another, brothers and sisters in Christ, who will walk with us in the good and in the bad.

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” This word (reasonableness) can be translated many different ways. It means “thoughtfulness, patience, consideration.” It means to be reasonable with your neighbor. They might disagree with you, but you have to take the time to consider what they have to say. After all, they might not have the same thoughts as you, but they might have worthy thoughts. They see things a different way, and that’s not always bad. We have become a people who are so determined to be right about everything that we won’t even listen to what ‘the other side’ has to say. If we did, if we were reasonable, we might discover that we don’t disagree quite as much as we think we do. And we might discover that there is a very happy medium which will satisfy everyone.

“Do not be anxious.” Again, impossible. I’m a worrier and I will always worry. And yet, as with the happiness, Paul isn’t talking about the fear we have when our kids are late or when a hurricane is roaring our way. That type of worry can be helpful because it causes us to do what we need to do to ensure everyone’s safety. God will take care of us, but if we stand in the path of a tornado, we will probably die. No, this anxiety has more to do about our daily life. God is with us, He is at hand. Instead of anxiety, Paul reminds us to live in God’s presence, to live by prayer and supplication in thanksgiving, trusting that God will hear your requests.

“And the peace of God…” Again, this is not what it seems to be. We think of peace as the absence of conflict. We know, however, that there is always conflict somehow in human relationships. Sometimes the conflicts are minor, sometimes they are world changing. But this peace, this peace of God that surpasses all understanding, is something very different. This is the peace that allows us to rejoice in our suffering, to trust in God even when the world seems like it is about to end. That peace guards our hearts and keeps us walking in faith. It is the peace of God that keeps us in one mind, as one body in Christ Jesus.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”

When Victoria was a teenager, she came at me often with the typical “whatever” when I tried to tell her something. It became a joke as time went by because I would quote this passage whenever she did so. Now, this is one of her favorite passages. I suppose that’s why I love it, too. The human “whatever” means, “I don’t really want to think about what you are telling me, so I’ll agree half-heartedly to get you off my back.” But in this case, Paul is saying, “These are the things you should think about. These are also the things that you should put into practice.”

See, faith in Christ gives us His mind to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. But, faith is not enough; faith demands that we do. So, the requirement of God is that we think about that which is true and that we live what is true. He requires that we think about what is honorable and so do and so on. “Practice these things,” says Paul. In doing so, we will know God’s peace.

We won’t be saved by the practice of these things. We’ve already been saved. We have received the invitation to the marriage feast, we have entered into the wedding hall, we have been covered with the robe, the righteousness of Christ. What have we to fear? What is there that we must worry? Even if our life should end right now, we will be feasting in heaven with our Father. We are called to be content, to be satisfied, to be happy because we know that God is faithful to His promises.

Finally Paul writes, “I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” This is what is required: to rely on God, to live in trust, to rest in His peace.

The people in our stories from Matthew—the son who said yes but did not do the work of his father, the tenants who thought that they deserved the vineyard so they killed the son, and today’s guests who ignored or rejected the wedding invitation—did not trust in God. They trusted in themselves, in their own rightness. They are like those today who still ignore and reject the God who has offered salvation to all who will believe. Unfortunately, in today’s passage we learn that there are some who accept the invitation but not the gift. They are the ones who are part of the Church but who have not truly accepted the free gift of God’s grace. They think that they are there according to their own works and righteousness. This is why it is so important to remember that we do not earn God’s grace but in His grace we are called to live accordingly.

We will probably worry, but we can look to today’s Psalm for comfort in those times when we are struggling in this world. Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved of scriptures, used over and over again in our lectionary. In the words of the shepherd, we are reminded that God is our Shepherd. He provides everything we need. He takes care of us. He leads us down the right path. He will be with us all the days of our life. He is faithful to His promises. We may not have the words to say in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving as we take our requests to God, but we can look to the scriptures for hope and dwell in the peace that God is our shepherd and that we will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

It all seems impossible, and it is. We can’t do this on our own; we can only live as God requires by His help. His Spirit gives us the faith to trust in Him. He strengthens us to get through the good times and the bad. He makes it possible do the impossible, to be the people He has invited us to be.

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