October 15, 2023

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

October 15, 2023

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 Exodus, “And the Lord changed his mind.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifying Sustainer. Amen.

     I have a confession to make this morning: The Gospel according to Matthew doesn’t always thrill me. It seems that 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 wear the right clothes, or you are thrown into hell. Luke mentions hell once, but Matthew gets really excited about hell … where a lot of people will grind their teeth for eternity.

It’s not that Jesus didn’t say any of these things, but rather, Matthew seems to enjoy talking about Hell, the same way he appears to enjoy the outcome of the parable of the wedding banquet in today’s gospel reading: you know, that good news of God in Christ. Nevertheless, 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 everyone’s welcome at the table. So let’s dig in!

     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 slaves to announce that the table is set, the meal is waiting, and urge these chosen ones to attend. But they scoff and kill the 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 and burns the invited guest’s cities to the ground killing everyone in his path. Now, 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, just a story. And the gist of the story is that this king is a wrathful person and you had better not cross him. But there is more to the story:

The king invites his “B” list this time and that probably included his C and D lists, too, and maybe those standing in line at the shelter, those desperate for food and drink; the incredibly poor and needy. I don’t know their circumstances but, they all come to the banquet. Now that is an inclusive and heart-warming scene! So much so, some theologians and scholars use this story to suggest that Jesus was foretelling that God is going to utterly reject God’s “A” list - the Jews, God’s chosen people – 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 is 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 explodes in anger because one of the guests isn’t wearing a wedding garment.

Now, imagine it: You’re at home working in 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 about the king’s wrath and that you’d better not cross him. So you drop everything and come just as you are to the banquet. And everything is lovely 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 didn’t get the memo about what to wear.”

In my parent’s Evangelical church, we children were taught that this parable is proof that God expects us to dress up in our Sunday best when we come to church. That is not the point here but, I cannot help but picture Matthew smiling as this 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 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.

     That’s why it is important to keep in mind that while this is Matthew’s version of the story; the gospel isn’t Matthew’s opinion. The gospel is the good news of God in Christ. We need to always remember the depths of God’s grace and mercy; remember today’s story from Exodus where God changed his mind! Scripture affirms that in spite of the Matthews of this world, there is always hope even if we are disobedient, even if we aren’t perfect, even if we are, at times, goats and not sheep.

     Exodus tells of a people who, having just entered into a covenant relationship with God and sworn to uphold and live the Ten Commandments, suddenly bow down and worship 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, and more. But they grew impatient because Moses, who went up the mountain to talk with God, was gone just too long.

We might shake our heads at this story and wonder how they could be so impatient. Yet, we’ve all been there. We wait and wait in line at the grocers. And as that wait continues, we start to complain to others around us hoping to create discontent like we heard in Exodus so that, together, we demand service right now!  See, Exodus reveals that Pharaoh was not the only problem for Israel. We might think that once they moved out of Egypt, once out of that 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 that long wait in line, to blame society, or blame our “A” list for upsetting the king. It is much harder to look in the mirror and realize it is we who are so often at fault, that we 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 … dressed like that?”

What I find most upsetting in this story is not the collective action of the people, nor is it God’s threat to kill everyone, but rather, God’s careful 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 has said, “I’m done.”

And that’s the moment grace bursts into this 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 because God’s mercy and grace is eternal. So why all this fuss about appearance: About wearing the appropriate wedding garment? What is Jesus saying here? Well, this parable is not really about clothing or dressing up or putting on a front, but rather, it is about who we really are on the inside.

     St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says our gentleness should be obvious to everyone because God’s people focus on that which is honorable, just, commendable, pure, pleasing and true. And when that focus becomes the core of our being, Paul says that just by looking at us, people know who we really are - Christ’s own - because when Christ truly dwells within us, he shines through us; we become like Christ. Yes, all are welcome: all are called; but responding to that call, the king’s invitation, requires a change not in our outward clothing but within us; a putting on, an embracing, of Christ and everything he said and taught.

     The good news in our gospel lesson is that we come to this morning’s feast wearing the right garment. We received it at baptism when we turned our lives over to God and we were clothed in Christ Jesus, and marked as his own forever. But the question our scripture lessons raise this morning is this: How is that garment working out for you and within you? Does it make any 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 welcome, love, mercy and forgiveness in every aspect of our lives? It all comes down to our inward appearance, the garments of our hearts and minds – hearts and minds that are so often clothed in sin and resentment.

     Friends, if it were up to the kings and Matthews of this world every one of us would be bound up and cast into the fires of hell. But, like Moses in Exodus, Jesus has and continues to intercede for us and for the whole world. So much so, our very lives can declare with complete confidence that, “The Lord (has) changed his mind” and invite others to know that grace in their hearts and lives, too.

     To paraphrase this morning’s Collect, may God’s grace and mercy continue to precede and follow us and continue to change and clothe our hearts and minds in and with Christ so that the good work of God can continue within us, each other, in our homes, and in this community. Oh God, let it be so. Amen.