October 11, 2020 The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost - October 11, 2020
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

From The Book of Exodus, “And the Lord changed his mind.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     It might surprise some of you this morning to learn that I am not always thrilled with the gospel according to Matthew. I find with Matthew everything is always black or white, and never gray. You are either righteous or evil; a sheep or a goat; a wise or an “ungrateful” servant; and you show up when invited and, of course, wear the right clothes, or else you are thrown into hell. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, The Imposter Syndrome, writes, “If Matthew and Luke had churches in my town, I would definitely go to Luke’s church … While Luke only mentions hell once, it seems Matthew cannot get enough of it … he really gets excited about hell … where a lot of sorry (people) will grind their teeth for all eternity” (“The Imposter Syndrome,” 10/12/08).

     See, it’s not that Jesus didn’t say these things, but rather, that Matthew seems to really enjoy reporting the hell factor, the same way he appears to enjoy the final outcome of the parable of the wedding banquet in today’s reading of the Gospel: the supposed good news of God in Christ. Thankfully, even with Matthew’s continuing emphasis on hellfire and darkness, this parable is very good news. We just need to dig deeply enough into the story to discover its affirmation of God’s amazing grace and our welcome at the table.

     A king invites his “A” list to his son’s wedding. It is assumed that these invited guests had promised to attend but, now that the wedding day is here, none of them show up. So, the king sends his slaves to announce that the table is set, that the meal is waiting, and urge these chosen ones, the friends and family of the king to attend. But they scoff and kill these messengers rather than come to the feast. Understandably, the king is enraged. He puts everything back in the oven, musters his armies, and then invades their cities and burns them to the ground killing everyone in his path. How all this happened in one day with enough time to get back and invite another group to the table, is not important to the story. It is, after all, a story. The gist of it is that this king is a wrathful person and you had better not cross him.

But, the story doesn’t end there. It goes on. The king sends messengers to invite his “B” list this time and probably included those on his C and D lists, and even those not on any list: you know, those standing in line at homeless shelter, those who are desperate for food and drink; the incredibly poor and needy. I don’t know their circumstances but, Jesus says they all came to the banquet. What an inclusive and heart-warming scene! So much so, many Christian theologians and scholars use this story to suggest Jesus was foretelling that God is going to utterly reject the “A” list - the Jews – and remember; God’s rejection and judgment of Israel is a favorite theme of Matthew. In addition, these same theologians and scholars suggest the invitation to the B list and beyond is actually a welcoming of the Gentiles to partake of God’s kingdom, to experience the grace of God, to live in a covenant relationship with God. Well, that’s fine and dandy from a Gentile perspective but, look at what happens next. The king comes in and pitches a fit because one of the guests isn’t wearing a wedding garment.

     Now, think about that for a moment: You’re at home cleaning up the yard, and you’re covered in mud when a messenger shows up and says, “Let’s go. The King wants you right now!” You’ve heard all about the king’s wrath and that you’d better not cross him. So you drop everything and come just as you are to what turns out to be a banquet. Everything is lovely that is, until the king sees you. “Who do you think you are showing up in my house dressed like that?” There’s no time to answer, “I was told to come right away, I was working in the yard, I didn’t get the memo about what to wear.”

     Growing up, I was taught this parable is a reminder that God expects us to dress up in our Sunday best when we go to church. I do not believe that is the point but, I cannot help but picture Matthew smiling as this poor guy is bound hand and foot, and thrown into utter darkness for all eternity just because of his appearance. It sounds to me like no one has a chance - Jew or Gentile.  No matter how hard we try to keep the Ten Commandments, do the right thing, say the right words, wear the right clothes, we will inevitably mess up. And if Matthew has his way, we are doomed.

It is when reading such scriptures that we need to remember that while it is Matthew’s version of the story; it is not Matthew’s gospel. The gospel is the good news of God in Christ. We need to remember God’s grace and mercy is eternal, to remember today’s reading from Exodus where God changed his mind! There is always hope for mercy and grace even in the face of disobedience, even if we aren’t perfect, even if we are, at times, goats and not sheep.

     Our reading from Exodus tells of a people who, having just entered into a covenant relationship with God and having sworn to uphold and live the Ten Commandments, suddenly creates, bows down to, and worships a false god. Time and again, they witnessed God’s intervention in their lives; the red Sea opened, they received bread and meat when hungry, water when thirsty, a cloud to lead them by day, and a fire to lead by night. But, they grew impatient because Moses, who went up the mountain to talk with God, was just gone too long.

We shake our heads at this story wondering how they could be so impatient. Yet, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We wait and wait for the mail to arrive – these days it seems longer than in the past. Or we wait in line at the grocers where there’s only one cashier. And as we continue to wait and wait, we think “Someone is going to pay for this. I’m going write a letter that’s for sure!” And we start to complain to others around us until we have gathered them into a mob of discontent like we read about in Exodus and, together we demand service right now!  Our story from Exodus reveals that Pharaoh was not the only problem for the people of Israel. It is easy to think that once they moved out of Egypt, out of that dreadful, abusive situation God’s people would experience a utopian society of good will, of milk and honey, of ease. That would be true if Pharaoh was the only issue. But, he wasn’t. It is easy to look to others as the source of our problems, to blame our leaders or society for whatever bothers us, to blame the “A” list for upsetting the king. It is much harder to look in the mirror and realize we are the ones at fault, the ones to blame, that we do create false gods and in so doing, mar our appearance in the sight of God who asks, “Who do you think you are … showing up in my house dressed like that?”

     See, what I find far more upsetting in this story from Exodus is not the collective action of the people nor is it God’s threat to kill everyone off, but rather, God’s carefully chosen words to Moses. God says, “Your people (Moses) whom you (Moses) brought out of Egypt have acted perversely.” Up until now, God always called them, “my people.” But, no more. God says, “I’m done, Moses.”

And that’s the moment grace bursts into the story! Moses intercedes and pleads for God to remember God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Exodus tells us, “The Lord changed his mind.” There is always hope for redemption, for salvation, because God’s grace is eternal. But what about our appearance? What about that image of wearing the appropriate wedding garment? What is God saying here? Well, this parable is not really about clothing. It is not about dressing up, putting on a front, but rather, it is about our real selves – who we really are on the inside.

     St. Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, says our gentleness should be obvious to everyone because God’s people focus on that which is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and true. And when that focus becomes the heart, the core of our being, Paul says that just by looking at us, people will know who we really are - Christ’s own - because when Christ dwells within us, he shines through us; we become like Christ. All are welcome: all are called; but responding to that call, the king’s invitation, requires a change in us; a putting on, an embracing, of Christ and all that he taught and showed us.

     The good news of today’s gospel lesson is that we are already wearing the right garment. We received it at baptism when we turned our lives over to God and were clothed in Christ Jesus, and marked as Christ’s own forever. But, the question each of today’s scripture lessons raise, is this: How is that garment working out in you? Does it make a difference? What change is it continuing to create in our hearts and minds? Are we growing in grace and becoming living examples of God’s unconditional love, mercy, justice, and forgiveness in every aspect of our lives - at home, at work, and in this community? It all comes down to the inward and honest appearance, the garments, of our hearts and minds – hearts and minds that we know are often clothed with sin and resentment.

You know, if it were up to the kings and Matthews of this world we, too, would be bound up and cast into the fires of hell. But, like Moses in Exodus, Jesus Christ has and continues to intercede for us and the whole world, and by the grace of God, “the Lord (has) changed his mind.”

     To paraphrase this morning’s Collect, may God’s grace and mercy continue to precede us and follow us. May it continue to change and clothe our hearts and minds in and with Christ so that we continue the good work of God in us, in one another, in this community, nation, and the world. O God, let this be so. Amen