Proper 23 Year A (Pentecost 19)
When the Bishop visits, he meets with the Vestry after the 10:00 service. One of the topics Bishop Beckwith asked about at his last visit was what we saw as the strengths of St. Paul’s, what we thought made our parish special. In our discussion, we discerned, and the Bishop, based on his own observations, affirmed, that this is a place of exceptional welcome. The Bishop called exceptional welcome one of our “charisms”. I had never heard that word before, but assumed that I knew more or less what it meant since it is similar to the words charisma and charismatic that I know. Still, I looked it up. It turns out that the definition was not exactly what I expected. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “charism” as “an extraordinary power … given [to] a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church.” An extraordinary power given to a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church. The salient point there being that, if exceptional welcome is our charism, it is not of our own doing. It is a gift from God.
Now I know that it has happened that a visitor has made it into the sanctuary ungreeted when the greeter was talking to someone else, took a seat off to his or herself where no one came to them at the passing of the peace, and then left having talked to no one. I’m sure it’s happened. But I am surer that it hasn’t happened much. We are a small enough congregation that those of us who attend regularly know who are the members and who are the visitors, and with rare exception someone will go out of their way if necessary to greet the visitor at the passing of the peace and make sure they feel welcome at the coffee hour. I even know of one family who, the first time they came to this parish, left with five free tickets to a Giants game, including a parking pass, and with a bouquet of the altar flowers. I’d say that that’s exceptional welcome.
For me, one dimension of our welcome is that we are what I call a “come as you are” kind of place. I mean that in the doctrinal sense, that you can come here whatever the state of your beliefs, with your doubts, your questions, your own idiosyncratic views and understandings of scripture and doctrine all intact, and still be welcome. That, of course, is nothing special about this parish; it’s an attribute of the denomination. But more particularly to us, I also mean “come as you are” in the mundane sense. No one cares much about how those coming to worship are dressed. Our clergy, acolytes and seminarians vest, and the choir members wear robes. But our lay readers, LEMs and chalice bearers do not vest. I understand that for some people, grand ceremony with vergers and every participant vested improves their worship experience. My experience, though, is that too much solemn spectacle creates an “us vs. them” atmosphere that leaves me feeling less part of it. I see the balance we strike here, of respectable worship but a notch or two down on the pomp and pageantry scale compared to our neighboring Episcopal parishes, as part of our welcome.
For the last several months, in place of the New Testament reading, we have each week been reading an excerpt from the Outline of Faith, or Catechism, found in our Book of Common Prayer. Today is the last day of that; we have now made it through the entire Catechism. And the last statement we read today, the culmination of the entire Catechism, is “Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God….” But after hearing the Gospel reading today, one might be inclined to want to adjust that to “nothing shall separate us from the love of God -- except wearing the wrong clothes.” Maybe, based on that Gospel reading, we aren’t supposed to come as we are after all. Well, before we conclude that, let’s look at the parable in more detail.
The king is giving a wedding banquet for his son. You would think that anyone invited would want to attend a royal feast, but the persons invited would not come. No reason given. He tries again, sending slaves to tell the invitees that dinner has been prepared, everything is ready, come to the banquet. But they still didn’t treat the invitation seriously, some because they had to tend to their farm or business, while the others, for no apparent reason, reject the invitation to the point of killing the king’s messengers. In response, the king sends soldiers to kill them and burn their city.
Now, it may be that Matthew meant this part of the story to be a criticism of the Jewish authorities, who refused God’s invitation to the point of having Jesus killed. The destruction of their city would then refer to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem which occurred not long before this gospel is believed to have been written, and which was still very fresh in the minds of the Jewish people. The first century reader therefore may have read this passage in that light. The lessons for us today, though, are that one way to miss God’s banquet is simply to choose not to attend, and, as in the parable, pre-occupation with work and other busy pursuits can cause that to happen. We all know that it can.
Since the persons invited to the banquet did not come, the king then sends his slaves out to the streets to invite everyone they find to the feast. The slaves gather whomever they find, good or bad, and fill the wedding hall. But when the king enters, he sees one man not wearing a wedding robe, and has him tossed out into the outer darkness, harshly. For not wearing a wedding robe.
In my albeit limited experience, I have never encountered such a disagreement among scholarly and clerical writers on a factual point germane to interpretation of scripture as I did in the case of wedding robes. Some preachers and writers I read asserted quite confidently that at that time, in addition to their everyday clothes, everyone would also have had a special robe that they reserved only for occasions like weddings. In reference to the story, then, they posited that the downfall of the man who was booted out was his failure to show enough respect for the king to run home to change before coming to the banquet. Others asserted just as confidently to the contrary that the custom at the time was for the host to provide the wedding robes. They would be there at the door for the guests to put on when they arrived. While none of us can know for sure which of these views is more historically accurate, it seems to me that the correct view has to be the second one. That is the only view that makes sense, either from a historical or an interpretative standpoint.
Keep in mind that the persons attending the banquet included everyone that the king’s slaves could find out on the streets. Everyone. I have studied enough about first century life to know that most people were poor. There were some wealthy people to be sure, but they were relatively few in number. So, we can assume that the people now attending this banquet, as opposed perhaps to the original invitees, were mostly poor. The proposition that people living meagerly, and essentially paycheck to paycheck, would have had the money for, and the inclination to spend it on, a fancy garment reserved for infrequent special occasions hanging in their closets, if they even had closets, strikes me as absurd.
The understanding that the host provides the wedding robes not only makes more historical sense, it also lets the story make theological sense. The suggestion that someone literally pulled off the street to attend a banquet that was ready to start should have gone home to change clothes before going to the banquet makes the king look like an unreasonable brute. But we can understand the king’s disappointment in a guest who fails to take what the king made freely available to the guests to enable them to participate fully in the festivities. The invitation was to participate in the celebration. By choosing not to wear the robe, by choosing not to get with the program, the guest was choosing not to fully participate in the banquet.
Just as the king made the wedding robe freely available, so, too, does God make what we need to participate in His kingdom – his saving grace -- freely available to us. As we entered this worship space today, we were greeted in the narthex by a bronze sculpture whose title is “Take These Gifts”. That’s why we’re here. In a few minutes, we will be invited to come before God’s Eucharistic table and partake of the gift of Jesus’s sacramental body and blood sacrificed for us. Everything we need to join God’s banquet feast is made available to us, we just need to accept it.
But it is not enough that we merely attend and go through the motions. In the parable, the king had to see that the guests were wearing the robes. So, too, for us, if we are going to be part of the celebration, to really participate in it, we have to do it in a way that is visible. In our actions.
Last week’s Gospel reading, which immediately precedes this week’s in Matthew, was the parable of the wicked tenants. There, Jesus said of those who are like the wicked tenants, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.” God’s will is that we bear fruit. God’s grace, when accepted, enables it. We saw earlier that a charism is given not as an end in itself, but so that the abilities it confers may be used for the good of the church. Today’s Collect of the Day underscores the importance that grace lead to works. As we heard Dave read: “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may be continually given to good works….”
God’s chosen are those who accept the gift of God’s freely offered grace and robe themselves in it as a mantle that can be seen by God and others, in the fruit they bear. Seen in the warm welcome extended to the visitor. Seen in the kindness shown to others, loving neighbors as Christ loved us. Seen in the thankfulness shown to God by living life both joyfully and generously.
God’s banquet that is the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth is a place of exceptional welcome. Everyone is invited. Everyone.
And, yes, we can come as we are.
But then, God will want to see that we’ve changed.