Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Dressed to Party
As a Chaplain and officer in the USAF Auxiliary, one of the things my wife Terri and I love to do is get dressed up and attend the formal banquets at training conferences. At the culmination of these events, an awards banquet is held at which, a keynote speaker shares with the attendees their wisdom, encouragement, and insights about how we can accomplish our mission better in the coming year. We also get to eat, and even though the meal is not five-star it is edible. The best part of the whole event (at least for me and Terri) is that we get to dress up. Terri dons a formal gown, and I wear my formal Mess Dress uniform with all the ribbons and accoutrements. All the participants are invited to the event, but folks cannot attend unless they are dressed appropriately. There are no utility uniforms, flight suits, or street clothes allowed. If you show up in the wrong attire, you are not allowed in. This is a formal affair and a big deal, so everyone who comes better get ready and get dressed in advance, because this is a celebration for which we all should be prepared.
Banquets and festive occasions are found throughout scripture. Sitting down for a meal with someone was culturally important in Jesus’ time. If you ate with someone, if you invited someone into your home, it said a great deal about your relationship with them. “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.” The words of the 23rd Psalm are familiar to all of us and the use of a meal as a metaphor should not surprise us. I know when I am most troubled, this Psalm brings words of great comfort to me. I have recited this Psalm many times with people in the hospital who were very ill, and with people at the end of their earthly journey. I have read this Psalm for those who could only hear it, but could not say the words themselves. This Psalm is comforting, reassuring, and reminds us of God’s invitation to us to dine with him at the banquet of grace, mercy, and reconciliation. Even so, what does God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet mean for us Christians?
Simply stated, first we the church are invited to receive God’s abundant grace. Second, we are called to respond to the invitation and show up. Third, we are called to be dressed for the party or rather, to be changed, transformed, and covered by the life changing life of Christ. Lastly, we are called to invite others to the party so that they too, might be a guest like us. Let me clarify one thing here, the banquet to which we are speaking of is not just our Sunday morning gathering of worship and sacrament. This banquet is a life-long, every day, life-transforming meal of mercy, peace, transformation, and restoration at which, we get to feast, not because of anything we do, but what God does for us and through us.
Invitation to God’s Table
God acted and continues to act first in the story of salvation. God invites and we respond but not just for ourselves, but for all of creation. In this story of salvation, we become co-inviters with God. Judith Johnson in her Christian Century article Invitation writes, “Christians are invited to take very seriously the invitation to divine intimacy and community with others. In doing so, we become light that shines in the darkness. We are to be like the rising sun, highlighting what had previously been obscured by darkness with the light of God’s grace and justice.” (2) We are invited to dine with God, but we are charged with the mission to invite others to join us at the table.
Following Jesus means that we are bearers of Good News. We are the means in the world today, by which others can see Christ in and through us. It is not merely sufficient to proclaim Good News passively, as if it was merely for me alone. The Church is on a mission of invitation, transformation, and reconciliation, actively engaging in the common invitation. We call this mission Evangelism, and that word surely frightens we Episcopalians. For some reason, we think we have to stand on a street corner with a gospel tract or a bullhorn and shout, “Jesus saves” in order to be evangelists. The key to evangelism in our context is through our lives being icons of Jesus; our lives being stained glass windows of the story of grace and mercy.
This mission we are on is not an easy one for sure, because it can be a little dangerous to say the least. The mission of evangelism is risky, because if we forget that in all we do as a church, in all we proclaim as a community, and in all we do in mission does not at its heart include evangelism, we are lost. As Edgar Krentz states in his Christian Century article, Risky Business, “Proclamation and baptism, which lead to life before God in the Christian community, are dangerous. In the history of the church, complacent Christians have often lost their place.” (3)
We are sent out to Invite
Our mission must always include our invitational partnership in God’s mission, which includes evangelism. Krentz adds, “Evangelism has serious consequences (because) proclaiming Christ issues an invitation that confronts people with a choice. (3). When we choose God’s Kingdom and we choose to invite others to make that same choice, it means we and they reject our own kingdom.
When we choose God’s banquet, that choice, “unmasks our idolatries, illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and lays bare our thoughts. It calls us to action and judges us when we do not respond.” (3) To lay aside our fears of that invitation for ourselves, we can then be open to transformation, which opens us up to a new life in Christ. It creates the opportunity to live anew. It serves as the catalyst to enter our spiritual wardrobes, set aside our earthly garments, don the wedding banquet formal dress of grace, and wear it every day.
We wear that garment of grace when we are “of the same mind in the Lord.” We wear the dress of grace when we “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” We are evangelists every day of our lives, when we show up at God’s banquet focused on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise.” There is great comfort in this promise, but there is a warning as well.
The Church – not wearing a wedding robe
Matthew’s gospel today warns us, ” Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” That sounds a bit harsh. I mean, where is the grace in all that? Some of us hear this phrase and for some reason we immediately think of Dante’s Inferno and eternal suffering, but I am not sure that is what Jesus had in mind in this parable.
Theologian Carter Lester writes in a 2008 article that this phrase means a “mournful, painful separation from the joyful comfort of God’s kingdom.” (4). In other words, the phrase embodies the emotion of the wedding guest who showed up dressed incorrectly. Maybe we are just like the guest ourselves. Some of us in the church arrive at the banquet of grace, but we have never been changed by it. Lester asserts, ” God’s invitation calls us to put on new clothes. Becoming a Christian should make a discernible difference in our lives.” (4). For some of us, we have never embodied the life-transforming grace, to which we have been called. Thus, we must realize that as long as we do not show up ready to be changed, nor do we allow God’s grace to transform the life we lead, then we too may come to realize the painful separation from God we continue to experience.
Lester writes, “What is needed by the church is not simply showing up with an invitation, but showing up wearing a wedding garment, that is, obeying God’s will and living out the Christian life.” (4) So, for we who respond to God’s invitation, we cannot be clothed by our own righteousness, for it alone falls short, misses the mark, and it can become a mere failed attempt to win God’s favor. We must be clothed only in the righteous abundant mercy of Christ’s grace poured out on us, covering our nakedness before God. You see this table before us today is an open invitation to be forever changed by grace. We merely come with open hand extended and we receive, but the banquet does not end here. As we leave this place, we are to be forever clothed in newness, the likeness and radiance of Christ. We are to go out there into the world and shine as icons, stained glass windows that reflect love, mercy, grace, and reconciliation of God. Remember, God invites us to the banquet and sisters and brothers. Remember, this life of discipleship is a formal affair and a big deal, so everyone who comes better get ready and get dressed in advance, because this is a celebration for which we all should be prepared.
(1) Grindal, Gracia. “Dress Code.” The Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 20, Sept. 2002, p. 18.
(2) Johnson-Siebold, Judith. “An Invitation.” The Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 20, Oct. 2005, p. 18.
(3) Krentz, Edgar. “Risky Business.” The Christian Century, vol. 113, no. 27, Sept. 1996, p. 889.
(4) Lester, Carter. “Matthew 22:1-14.” Interpretation, vol. 62, no. 3, July 2008, pp. 308–310