October 15, 2017
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Series, “Barriers to Generosity” – Entitlement
I have a keen interest in the British royalty. I love to read both history in general and historical fiction of England. I’m fascinated with the lives royals lead, and with the ritual and tradition that surround them. Last year, for instance, the two television programs I most enjoyed binge watching were “Victoria” – based on the life of Queen Victoria I, and “The Crown,” based on Elizabeth II, the reigning Queen of England.
As a result, I find royal weddings kind of exciting. The first royal wedding I very clearly remember was that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. I recall the excitement of the crowds, straining to get a look at Lady Diana in her royal carriage on the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral; the pageantry; her charming stumble over the order of her husband-to-be’s multiple names. What fun to be invited to such a spectacle and party!
So, I have to tell you that if I received an invitation to a royal wedding, I would feel enormously honored and grateful to be among those to be included. There is no way I can expect to ever receive such an invitation. Therefore, if I indeed received one, not only would it come as a great surprise but I would do everything in my power to come, prepared to show not only my gratitude and joy, but my utter respect and desire to please and honor the queen or king issuing the invitation.
So, what’s wrong with the people who were the first to receive the invitation to the king’s son’s wedding in today’s gospel text? The king must have been so pleased to issue the invitation. With great pride and with over-the-top generosity, surely, he looked forward to having the grateful recipients of the invitation come to honor both him and his son by their presence. What a party he was prepared to throw!
What’s wrong with these people who surprisingly declined the invitation? Who simply would not come? Who had better things to do with their time – more important things demanding their time and attention?
Not only did they decline the initial invitation, but they made light of it – they behaved as if they were entitled to the invitation, and could simply choose to attend only if it were convenient enough for them to do so – only if they had nothing better to do. They behaved as if this invitation and the honor it conveyed was all about them and had nothing to do with the honor, fealty and praise that was the king’s due.
Now, we all know that rulers can be incredibly thin-skinned. When thwarted they can behave like children having a full-blown and devastating temper tantrum, with devastating and deadly results. After all, kings expect the ultimate respect, honor, and worship of their subjects.
So, when we read what seems to be the over-the-top reaction of the king to the insult that has been dealt him when even a second invitation he issued was rejected, we are shocked.
But the people hearing this parable for the first time would have gotten it. They would have understood the disconnect - the deep disloyalty of these invitees, who have repaid the king’s generous invitation with disregard and insult; they would have understood the tragic ramifications of their rejection.
But, as the parable goes on, it is not just the outright rejection of those on the king’s first invitation list that is brought under scrutiny. Another group of people is invited.
These are the ones who probably think the likelihood of them ever receiving an invitation from the king is about the same as my ever being invited to the next royal wedding. Null. So, when they do receive an invitation, they are excited. They don’t even care that they weren’t in the first group, they never expected to be. Instead, they are grateful to be thought of at all.
Anyone accepting this invitation would want to put their best foot forward, to be seen as grateful for the generosity of the king, and worthy by the king’s grace to be in the mere presence of the king and his son, let alone to be their honored guests.
So it is surprising – shocking, even, when this one person behaves in a manner that shows his hosts less than the honor and praise they deserve. He seems to think that all he needs to do is just show up.
While those attending this wedding would be given the appropriate wedding dress provided by the king himself, this person eschews even that tradition. It just doesn’t suit him. He’s happy to come to the party, but seems to take the rest for granted.
The problem with the first group who were invited and with this single invitee seems to be the same. They lack the proper attitude toward their gracious host and king. They lack the respect to accept the generosity of the king as pure gift and not simply as their due. They forget to respond with the proper sense of gratitude and awe for being included in the party at all.
Each week, we are invited to the greatest feast imaginable. This is the feast, Martin Luther wrote, of the marriage - the union between heaven and earth. We come together in worship as undeserving guests, to praise God and offer our thanksgiving for this marriage, the incarnation of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We are invited to the banquet to celebrate God’s love and generosity and our inclusion in the marriage feast.
On our own, we are not worthy to be here, but by God’s good grace we are among both the good and the bad, saint and sinner both, who have received the invitation. We don’t deserve this honor, in fact there is nothing we could do to be so deserving. We come not because we are great but because God is great and steadfast in love, mercy, and generosity.
The problem with entitlement is, that whenever we allow ourselves to believe that we deserve what we have, or are somehow more worthy than another, we will find ourselves incapable of gratitude. The proper response to the king’s invitation is to run breathless to the banquet, dressed for the marriage of heaven and earth, wondering how we ever got on such a guest list.
When we come to church, we answer God’s gracious invitation to unite around the table. While we find community here, we don’t come for community. While we find lovely music and pleasing surroundings and friendships here, we don’t come for those things.
We find forgiveness of our sins here, but we should not forget that we come as beggars in need of God’s mercy, neither entitled to it nor deserving of it. But, because God loves us so, we come to be surprised, humbled and grateful to be among those Christ serve at the table of life. Such gratitude requires us to sing out for joy, and cry out in thanksgiving and praise of God.
In the traditional eucharistic liturgy still in use in some places is this confession: “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” We would do well to use these words in our liturgy as well, and to embrace the truth within them.
Our birthright as followers of Jesus Christ is to remember that none of us is worthy – none of us deserves to be here; therefore, we should respond to this invitation with nothing short of humble gratitude and thanksgiving.
Like the guests invited to the wedding feast in our gospel story, we too are provided a garment appropriate for the celebration.
The garment we are provided is the righteousness that comes from God.
This garment, in which we become clothed in baptism, sets us apart as the glad recipients of God’s grace. It is the outward expression of the inward change God performs in us in the sacrament through which God calls us Child of God.
It is no ordinary garment, even by the finest of standards. For this garment is comprised of threads of compassion, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. The fabric of this garment is knit with concern for social justice, care for the poor and the marginalized. The golden thread that holds together the seams of this garment was spun from the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and it compels us, to welcome other to the feast.
It compels us to be not only guests, but servants. It reminds us that in the eyes of God, whether we came from the stock of the good or the bad, we are forever transformed by God’s grace, united with Jesus Christ and with one another at the table.
Worthy? No, except by the love and mercy of God, which knows no bounds. Deserving to be here? No, but our inclusion compels us not only to come to the party, but to come prepared to give honor and glory to the host with thanksgiving, joy, respect and love. May it be so.