Year A Proper 22--God's Invitation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St.Mark
Year A, Proper 23: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
God’s Invitation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There’s a story told by Archbishop Rowan Williams about one of his meetings with the late, great Anglican contemplative Mother Mary Clare SLG when he was a serious, angst-ridden young man. Williams was worried about whether he was doing enough suffering, being compassionate enough, and working hard enough to save the world. From underneath her starched habit, Mother Mary Clare watched Williams’ hand-wringing with a bemused smile on her face, a twinkle in her ageless eyes. When he had finished prattling on, she sat there in silence for a good long while. Williams squirmed in his chair and looked at her searchingly. Finally, she clapped her hands and chuckled, “Dear Rowan, Rowan, Rowan. You don’t have to save the world. That’s already be done for us by God in the gift of His Son. See you next month.”
Williams’ point in telling and re-telling this story over the years is to highlight how easy it is for us forget what God has already done for us in the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of his only son. In Christ, we have been reconciled to God who no longer dwells behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies hidden away from view and accessible only by a privileged few with the right credentials and in possession of the secret handshake. When the curtain in the Temple is rent at the crucifixion, it’s a symbol of a completely new understanding of the Holy that is birthed in the sending of the Son. God is no longer a distant, rather ominous Being, of whom we hear reports through high priests and (depending if you believe them or not) those crazy prophets. With the tearing of the Temple Veil, the Holy spills over everything, seeps into every nook and cranny, so that there is no place, no person, no creature left untouched by the presence and love of God. Jesus’ intimacy with the Father, is now ours. God is the fine point of our soul. “All the way to heaven is heaven itself,” as St. Catherine of Sienna reminds us.
When we remember this fact, and the full import of its significance pierces our forgetful and distracted hearts, it’s clear that the only proper response to being invited to participating in the very life of God—swimming on the ocean of God’s love and mercy, enjoying the One whom we are made to enjoy—is unbridled Thanksgiving—“always and everywhere to give thanks to you.” There is a party going on, a wedding banquet for the Son of God, in whom we have been reconciled to God, in whom is our healing, wholeness, and salvation, in whom we have pierced through the veil of separation to enjoy full and free access to the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness. Sadly, we often live in relative unawareness of this astounding fact and stew in a toxic soup of perceived lack, imagining a locked door where there are just gates flung wide open. Showered by grace, love, and mercy, we send our most politely worded regrets and tactfully decline the invitation. We busy ourselves in the fields, go about our daily round of duties, and even (in the hyperbolic language of the parable) kill off those who try to remind repeatedly us of the invitation. Episcopal priest Robert Capon puts it nicely when he writes, “The world has been summoned precisely to a party—to a reconciled and reconciling dinner chez the Lamb of God; judgement is pronounced only in the light of the acceptance or declination of that invitation.”
I’ve often pondered why it is that in face of such Good News—unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness—we often find ways to turn down the invitation. Like those first invitees we send our regrets to the greatest celebration ever held. One reason, I’m convinced, that we decline the offer is because we simply cannot comprehend the alternative economy of God’s grace. We simply don’t trust free, unconditional, unearned, unmerited grace. We think such a picture of God makes us freeloaders, loafers, and layabouts. We’d rather think of ourselves as smart, competent, hard-working folks who have earned their own way, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and climbed to the top of the ladder. To paraphrase the old Smith Barney ads on T.V.—“We get our grace the old-fashioned way; we earn it.” But in the world of Grace, there is no earning. No top or bottom. No bootstraps. No ladders. No worthy and unworthy. No clean and unclean. Just as the King sends his slaves out into the highways and byways to invite all comers—“the good and the bad”—until the wedding hall is crammed full (not just with guests but with all of creation), so it is with Grace. There are no insiders and outsiders at the banquet. Everyone, without exception, is called to Marriage Feast of the Lamb that celebrates not just Jesus’ union with the Father in the Spirit, but the union of Christ’s Bride, the Church, with its Beloved.
And that’s another irony about the refusal of the invitation. It’s not like we are invited to a wedding of a someone who works down in the mailroom at work, or the friend of a friend of a friend from high-school. This is personal. This is about us. It’s a party, a celebration, a eucharista, thrown in the joyous recognition of our marriage to God in Christ through the Spirit. The candles are lit, the table is set, the band is playing, and the Christ the Bridegroom has his open, beckoning hand extended, but somehow we refuse. Not just because we can’t comprehend the free gift, but also because, deep down, I wonder if don’t think we don’t really deserve it. Extravagant Grace is for everyone else. We are the lone exception, the freak of nature. If the Father of the Prodigal had seen our ugly mug, we tell ourselves, he would have turned tail and run.
This is where the reality of God’s grace has the power to cut through the ropes of unworthiness and self-hatred that keep us bound hand and foot, languishing in the outer darkness where we gnash our teeth in lonely isolation, and cry ourselves to sleep. We have these old, inherited stories about ourselves that lock us in destructive patterns, and we have old stories about God that try to limit his wild, extravagant, profligate grace to something understandable, predictable, and ultimately controllable, in human terms. Grace moves at the speed of love and we, like one of the NASCAR restrictor plates that prevent the engine from going too fast, often to want to slow things down to an all-too-human crawl and mete Grace out in measured dribs and drabs. Truth be told, we almost prefer these stories of ourselves and God because, despite their destructiveness, at the very least they are safe and familiar to us. Capon continues, “Free grace, dying love, and unqualified acceptance might as well be a fifteen-foot crocodile, the way we respond to it: all our protestations to the contrary, we will sooner accept a God we will be fed to than one we will be fed by.”
It’s easy to get bogged-down by the over-the-top nature of the King’s reaction in the parable. Sure we get invitations we don’t respond to, but the weekly crime blotters don’t contain too many examples of postal carriers who have been murdered for delivering an invite to a wedding. Certainly, we’ve all planned a party, sent out invitations, and gotten everything just so only to have a bunch of people not show up. But none of us will then “go nuclear” like an unhinged Emily post who has finally cracked, kill the invited guests and raze their houses to the ground. Clearly, we are meant to take this seriously, but not literally. This is Holy Spirit-fueled strategic exaggeration used to drive home two powerful points. First, when we say “No,” to the persistent invitation to participate in God’s love and welcome of us into God’s very life, we are in some mysterious way killing God. We make the flourishing of love and mercy in and through us less likely. Our “No” is a stumbling block, a blockage to the free flow of grace and the mind and heart of Christ becomes little less visible.
The second thing to realize is that this “No” boomerangs back on us. Our houses might not look like something out of Firestarter, but there are consequences to our lack of response, our tight-lipped silence in the face of the invitation. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will find peace.” Well, the opposite is also true. Make your life a “No,” remain stiff-necked, and unresponsively mute in the face of the call to live as the shape love takes in the world, and that has death-dealing ripple-effects as well.
Now, what to make of this last bit of the parable? Things seem to be going along fine—the banquet is in full swing with the good and bad all in attendance boogieing down on the dance floor of grace—when the King stops the music and sentences someone to eternal torment for a dress-code violation. Huh? The key to understanding this part of parable is to recall Paul’s injunction that we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. The mind of Christ, the mind and heart of self-emptying love that goes out as a humble servant to the last, the lost, the least, and left behind, is to be our mind, our garment. God’s love is to live through us. Love, mercy, and justice are the threads out of which our garment is woven. We are meant to be channels of God’s grace. We are created to be clothed in God’s love. When the King asks why the guest doesn’t have a wedding garment, he is really saying—“You’re here at the banquet, but you’re not really here, you know? Grace trnasfigures and transforms and the fruits are visible as the growth in love in charity in the midst our daily lives. I don’t see that with you. What’s up?”
This is not an intervention by the fashion-police, but the pointed naming of a life that, like the first invitees, remains bound, and untransformed by the reality of God’s open invitation and free gift of Himself. The guest’s silence is instructive. He is unresponsive. Frozen. Unmoved and unmoving. When the King asks a question, when the knock sounds on the door of his heart, he has no response. Someone else will get it. The King can’t really be talking to the likes of me, he tells himself. The garmentless guest, in a sense, binds himself hand and foot, by his lack of consent to the transformative power of grace in his life. Don’t be one of those people who in the midst of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, refuse to believe they are at the party. There is no one else to answer the call. Let your whole life be a “yes” to the invitation to love and to be love in the world. Join the party. Share in the feast. And while you’re at it look around at who else is sitting at the table—it’s all of creation giving voice and singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”