Sermon by Fr James Heard, St George's Church, on Sunday 15 October Trinity 18

Sermon by Fr James Heard, St George's Church, on Sunday 15 October Trinity 18

At our Bible study this week, studying Romans, we (or perhaps it was just I) wondered whether we might delete verses we didn’t like. And, of course, we can’t just delete the bits we don’t like. Sometimes they say challenging and important things we need to hear. At other times, I’m left feeling very uncomfortable with the picture of God presented in certain passages. Of course, there are passages in the OT where (the writer has) God condoning genocide, which I tend to interpret at the victors writing history and claiming God to be on their side. That happens throughout history throughout the world.

But what about the implications of our Gospel reading today. It’s about wedding guests who didn’t show up and it’s incredibly provocative: the whole section could be subtitled, ‘How to get yourself killed’. Its provocative because it summarises, as did the reading last week about the vineyard, the theme that God calls but his people reject his call along with his prophets. And, as usual, Jesus’ sharpest critique is directed at the religious leaders.
In the parable, God, represented as a king, has a big wedding banquet. All of the preparations have been made, the place had been decorated, oxen and the fat calves had been slaughtered and cooked, a huge among of energy, planning and money had been spent. This was, after all, the wedding of king’s son: it's a big deal for the whole community.

The king sends various waves of people to invite his people to the wedding banquet. They reject the invitation with increasing harshness and the king punishes them severely. Verse 7 describes how the king sends his troops to destroy the city. It’s important to know a little about the context here. Because it’s thought that this part about destroying the city might have been added to the parable later by Matthew, so as to make explicit the connection between what Jesus was saying and the terrible events of AD70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

The parable goes on. If God’s own people refuse to attend the wedding, then he will extend the invitation to the overlooked, the unworthy, those excluded from Temple worship. The unworthy are given a wide open invitation. And the unworthy included the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the blind and lame… basically all who are deemed the riff-raff, they are extended an open invitation. It also included the bad and the good in that order so as to emphasise that entrance is not based on merit but is a gratuitous invitation based on God’s generosity.  This theme of generous inclusion runs throughout the Gospels, much to the displeasure of the religious leaders.

However, it's a parable that has been used to justify anti-Semitism. And it also presents a rather unattractive picture of God (represented by the king) who gets angry and who destroys those who don’t show up along with their city. Is God really like that? How might be make sense of this?

It’s important to note that parables usually have one main point. Rather than getting worked up about what this or that might mean or reveal about God’s character, the main point here is rather good. God’s invitation to the banquet of his son is flung open to all. It’s not just for the elites, although they too are welcome. It is for those whom society deems to be outside the possibility of God’s love. Perhaps the OT reading was included on purpose alongside this parable. Because Isaiah’s God promises to remove the disgrace of his people and “wipe away the tears from all faces.” He is “a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.” He will “swallow up death forever.” What if the church were known for incarnating this God on earth?

I wish the Gospel reading ended there. It’s the sort of message I have felt strongly for many years – God’s love is limitless, all are welcome, no one is excluded. 

But the next part is about a man who shows up at the feast without the proper wedding attire (Matthew 22:11-13). Luke’s Gospel doesn’t have this part and its thought it’s a second parable. The king asks how the man got into the wedding without the proper clothing, and when the man is unable to provide an answer, the king has him thrown out of the wedding hall and into the darkness outside.

This sounds really strange. Not just strange but deeply offensive. The outcastes are invited as they are and they come. And then the king excludes one of them because he’s not wearing the right clothes. The party suddenly sounds as though it’s become exclusive again.

It's the sort of passage I want to delete. This week I’ve been hung up on the fate of the poorly dressed man. But clearly, there is more to this story than clothing. And I think the main point, the one point of this parable, is that whilst all are invited to the heavenly wedding banquet, and whilst we are welcome to come as we are, God’s love refuses to let us stay as we are. The point is that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of love and justice and mercy and holiness. These are the clothes to wear. St Paul writes to the Galatians, ‘Clothe yourself with Christ’… this is the key to understanding this.

Love wants the best. God wants lives transformed, healed, changed. The chosen are the ones who realize that just showing up is not enough. The chosen are the ones who believe that God desires us to be redeemed, transformed, by the power of his limitless love.

So, what should we not wear? Complacency, conformity, cynicism, and any kind of garb that’s content with the way things are. What should we wear? The kind of compassion, birthed by God’s own righteousness, that cannot leave things the way they are. A compassion that longs to see the world transformed and where the church may be, as the poet Isaiah describes: “a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.”

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