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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Garment of Grace and Delight

 Matthew 22:1-14

Apparently, we have it all wrong.

When asked why they come to church, and today this “coming” would be relative – more people have “come” to church “virtually” in the past six months than have come in person, so we’ll include virtual worship here – most people will include in the top three or four reasons, the comfort they receive from such religious engagement. It is important for their spiritual and mental well-being.

In a 2018 Pugh Research poll of people who attended religious services (all traditions and religions were included) at least once or twice a month (the new definition of “regular” attendance), the top four responses were

·         “To become closer to God” (81%)

·         “So children will have a moral foundation” (69%)

·         “To make me a better person” (68%)

·         “For comfort in times of sorrow/trouble” (66%)

The comfort factor is important. Some of the comfort we seek and receive comes from belonging to a community of people with similar values and beliefs. The support we receive, the prayer, and the caring are important and can be life-giving. Some of the comfort comes from familiar rituals and words that are spoken and shared. Some of the comfort comes from hearing the gospel of grace, being reassured of the forgiveness of God, and receiving a share of the love and mercy that are larger than anything we can conjure on our own.

The Ten Commandments, however, tell us that worshiping and praising God is the main purpose of our Sabbath activity – they don’t say anything about comfort.

But the reality is that the comfort we receive is a fundamental faith need, and we seek its fulfillment through worship. But God perhaps gathers us for an entirely other reasons.

Back in seminary, I was taught that the gospel is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Our emphasis on Law and Gospel is part of this comforting and afflicting. We learn, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, how God desires us to live in the world and how incapable we are to live in that way - how often we fail at it.

The flip side of the coin, however, is that through grace, we receive the forgiveness of our sin and redemption through Jesus through faith and are thus saved from the ravages and ultimate consequence of our sin. Rather than suffering eternal damnation, we receive eternal life. THAT is the ultimate comfort any of us can receive. Thus freed, we turn to the gospel of Jesus to learn how to live within God’s grace and love.

And so, through our experiences of worship, we explore – what would Jesus do in a predicament like ours? How have we seen God respond to the need of those in pain, isolated, and forgotten? What does Jesus say about our attachment to money, status, power, and the things of this world?

If indeed, the gospels are supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” God must have created the parables to accomplish the afflicting part– because they wildly succeed in this. The truth of the matter is, that if we read the parables and do not feel ourselves provoked, disturbed, challenged, and afflicted, then we are probably not paying attention to them as closely as we ought.

Well, my friends, there is no better example of being thus provoked, afflicted, or convicted than to read the parable we have just heard from Matthew’s gospel.

Certainly, Jesus was no teller of cozy bedtime stories – can you just imagine leaving him to babysit your small children and then have him begin, “here’s one for you kids, ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this….;” and then have him tell this confusing, awful story? It is a harsh, hyperbolic story, this wedding banquet tale. It is steeped in violence, making it a good candidate for the upcoming celebration of all things macabre; it would make a perfect Halloween horror movie – the king’s troops could all dress up as ghouls and monsters.

The king wants to throw his son a grand wedding banquet and he decides to invite anyone who is anyone in the entire kingdom to celebrate his joy. Make no mistake about it, such an “invitation would truly be seen more as a command appearance in those days.  But his invitation is universally rejected. He sends out servants again, to entice his desired guests with details of the preparations being made, but about half of the servants are just sent on their way, while the rest are mistreated or murdered. The king is incensed, and he declares the invitees all unworthy anyway and sends his troops out to kill those they find and burn down the city. Finally, he instructs his agents to go out and invite anyone they find along the way regardless of their reputation or their poverty, just bring them, and fill the wedding hall. Let’s have a party!

While the parable is told by Jesus during his lifetime, the retelling of it in this gospel by Matthew was written after the events of 70 A.D., when there is reason to believe that Matthew witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. Matthew understood those events as God’s judgment on those who had been chosen for blessing but instead had rejected Jesus in the same way the king’s invitation was turned down – by torturing and killing him.

Perhaps he told this story to underline the devastating consequences of rejecting Jesus as God’s messiah, or to point out how it was that God went beyond the Chosen People of Israel to fill his banquet feast at the wedding of his son, the celebration of the wedding of heaven and earth.

Yet as he comes up to this nameless man, the one who has refused to appropriately honor the son, the king orders a similar, fiendish fate for him – to be tied up and thrown out into the place of ultimate hopelessness and anguish.

Truth be told - I hate this story. I was so tempted to preach on something else, or even the Psalm because, who doesn’t want to hear a sermon on “The Lord is My Shepherd, the one who protects me, cares for me, and fills my table with good things” Right? Isn’t that why you came here today? For that kind of message, that kind of comfort?

But then, I looked at the news this week. We are surrounded by tales of rejection and in-fighting and out-fighting and rebellion. We are complicit in sins of greed and turning away from the gracious invitation by God to share all that God has given us with others; note that I said sharing not some but all of that with which we are blessed.

Instead, we fight to protect our wealth, our prestige our status in society, our untarnished, shiny rights and protections and freedoms even while we abuse the rights, protections and freedoms of those we judge less deserving of these things than we are and we reject the grace, mercy, and sheer goodness of God, received through faith in Jesus Christ.  

And yet – here we gather or come. Some will be reading this sermon from the safety of their own homes and others are right here, gathered together, and each of us is given this word through the call of the Holy Spirit. And for good reason. Because here, we find forgiveness of our sins, yet we remember that we are but 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 welcomes at the table of life. Such gratitude requires us to sing out for joy and cry out in thanksgiving and praise of God.

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 are 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 each of us “Child of God”.

It is no ordinary garment, even by the best 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.

Wearers of this garment are eternally equal to all other garment-wearers, with no distinction between race or class, or gender or sexual identity, nor political party nor ethnic background, nor immigration status, nor color of skin; for the grace of salvation which comes from the Lord knows no distinction. Our job is to go and tell, to invite all, and to leave to the host any thinning of the crowd. Our job is to open our hearts and our lives to the grace with which God blesses us, calls us, and yes, absolutely comforts us, and then to go and share the same with all we meet. May it be so.


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