The Wedding Feast

Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

Sermon given Sunday, October 15, 2017

All Souls Episcopal Church

Don Alexander

Proper 23

Today Matthew gives us another parable about the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ most common theme, mentioned nearly 100 times.  But, have you noticed Jesus never defines the phrase?  He uses metaphors to say what the Kingdom of God is like - today it’s like a wedding feast, last week it was like a vineyard, a month ago it was like a king who forgives a great debt, and another time it was like a mustard seed. And sometimes he tells us the Kingdom of God is ‘now,’ or it is ‘within us,’ or ‘among us,’ or he surprises us with who is entering the kingdom -  but he never defines it.

Many years ago I began looking for a definition of the Kingdom of God.  I’m not a pushover for an easy answer.  The definition needed to explain all of the parables and sayings about the Kingdom of God and be consistent with the teachings of Jesus.  I came up with a definition that did this and more. It not only clarified confusing parables but other passages I thought I understood took on new and profound meanings. I also discovered the Kingdom of God is a theme that starts in chapter one of Genesis and runs through the Old and New Testaments.  More importantly, Christianity ceased to be a set of rules and became the way I related with everyone.  In both casual encounters and profound relationships I could choose whether to live the Kingdom of God.  Let me share a bit of this journey with you.

For many years I’ve triaged parables into parables I like, parables I don’t like, and parables I don’t understand.  This may sound sacrilegious, but approached honestly it helped me to focus my study on what I didn’t understand.  Today’s Gospel used to be a parable I didn’t understand.  It was also a parable I didn’t like.  Let me explain.

This king invites his friends to a wedding feast.  Some had farms to work and others had businesses to run and were too busy to attend.  When they declined the invitation, the king declared his friends unworthy and killed them, then destroyed their cities.  That is incredibly harsh punishment for declining an invitation!  Then he sent out slaves to invite not just strangers, but everyone - good and bad.  Can you imagine inviting murderers, thieves, and drug dealers to the All Souls Christmas party?  Yet are we truly inclusive if we don’t welcome everyone?  And remember the guy who disobeyed the dress code?  They bound him hand and foot and threw him where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Couldn’t they have just ask him to leave?  To me, this king seems pathologically harsh!

After pondering this story about the Kingdom of God, and discounting the possibility of exaggerations, which Jesus often used, I doubted if I wanted an invitation to this party.  And if I got an invite, I definitely wanted the dress code to be spelled out explicitly.  This parable and my understanding of heaven were irreconcilable until I understood the Kingdom of God.  Here’s what I have come to believe the Kingdom of God is:

The Kingdom of God is found in relationships when we mindfully respond to another person in a caring way.  The Kingdom of God is not an emotional response nor is it based on fear or learned prejudices.

I recently heard a story about Desmond Tutu, the former bishop of Johannesburg, South Africa that illustrates this definition.  Born in 1931 Tutu was raised under apartheid rule.  One day while walking with his mother, Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest, tipped his hat to Tutu’s mother.  It was a small act, perhaps as small as the proverbial mustard seed.  It was mindfully done because in apartheid South Africa white men never acknowledged the humanity of black women, which the hat tip did.  It was counter to the learned prejudices of the day. Tutu was profoundly moved by the simple act and saw in it the power of religion and the value of all of humanity.  Sixty years later he helped bring down apartheid rule and form a new government that recognized the humanity of all, regardless of color.  The hat tip was just the seed, it certainly had to grow and be nourished, but without the seed, no tree could grow to give life to South Africa. 

It is this through this kind of mindfulness that you and I usher in the Kingdom of God. It is what Jesus was talking about when he said, more than once, that the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. My definition parallels the greatest commandment.  It promotes love of neighbor - and here’s the difficult part - everyone is our neighbor - no exceptions!  It makes sacred the full development of the humanity of the people we meet - and in doing so makes sacred our humanity. 

I mentioned finding a theme running through all of Scripture about the Kingdom of God.   I’ll offer you one example today but there are dozens more examples and many of them are eye opening.  The most common phrase in scripture is ‘be not afraid’ or some variation thereof.  The phase appears about 120 times and it is in both Testaments.  Fear is largely rooted in our uncertainty and our learned prejudices.  This command, ‘fear not’’ is God calling us to mindfully trust God despite our uncertainty and to rise above our prejudices and live into the Kingdom of God.

Now, let’s explore today’s parable with this understanding of the Kingdom of God.  The invitation the king sent out to his friends was likely to the Jews.  Jews understood themselves to be God’s chosen people.  Apparently some of them we’re running their farms and businesses in a way that wasn’t bringing the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps they were short-changing wages, or beating or belittling workers.  Whatever the case, these people destroyed their own humanity by failing to live into the Kingdom of God.  Death is a metaphor for destroying humanity.  And what of destroying the cities?  Urban blight in America is a clear example of failing to live the Kingdom of God.  Thriving cities died when manufacturing , moved to countries where slave wages and child labor were legal in order to save production costs.  Shopping moved out to suburban malls and greed was at least one of the motives for the move.  To survive, some people left behind in the cities turned to crime, gangs, drugs, and prostitution.  Both the causes and the results of urban blight are counter to fully realizing our humanity and the Kingdom of God.  They create fear that drives business away and furthers poverty.  In the parable when the people didn’t accept the invitation to live the Kingdom of God, their cities died, just like ours.

And what about inviting the good and the bad?  The parable is easy if we keep the good and the bad nameless - the good are like us and bad are mean-spirited people or they’re criminals.  The parable ceases to be easy and makes us uneasy when the good and the bad have names!  The king’s invitation list certainly included Harvey Weinstein, Heather Heyer, Donald Trump, Colin Kapernick, David Duke, Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Alicia Garza, you and me? I expect you and I both find some of these folks a challenge to love.  Very likely some of the people who challenge me will be easy for you to embrace and vice-versa.  That reflects on our failings because they are all our neighbors and deserve our love - no exceptions!  - God loves and invites all God’s children - Jesus commands us to love our neighbor - no exceptions.  We are all God’s family and we’re all invited to the feast.

So finally, what about the man who violated the dress code?  I think this is toughest part of the parable.  On the surface, it’s obviously someone who didn’t live the Kingdom of God.  But I think Jesus inserts this person to challenge us to ask ourselves, ‘Now that I’m invited, what am I wearing to the feast?’  Have I put on Christ, that is the wedding robe, by truly loving my neighbor - without exception?

Our call, given to us by Jesus, is to bring forth the Kingdom of God - hear and now, on earth as it is in heaven.   We can only do this by choosing to act mindfully and not out of fear or prejudice.  At each opportunity tip your hat to the least among us, forgive, be generous with the gifts you have been given, be not afraid, and like St. Francis, find your leper and kiss them - they’re family.  Be kind even to God’s children you don’t like; they’re invited to the feast, everyone is - without exception. 

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