Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Dressing Up for the Banquet". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Matthew 22:1-14 for Bread for the World Sunday

"Dressing Up for the Banquet"

Matthew 22:1-14;  Isaiah 58:1-12

“This is the good news of Jesus Christ!”   
            Is it?  Is that what you heard in the gospel lesson?  Good news?
            This is a difficult parable to hear…and difficult to understand and interpret.  We spent some time studying this parable at Evangelism Committee meeting a few days ago, knowing it was the lectionary passage for Sunday.  After we heard it, someone looked at me and said, “Good luck!”
            Some of the commentaries I consulted this week describe this passage as a “bizarre little story”[1] and “one strange parable.” Some scholars suggest that Matthew may have combined several parables into one, which may explain why the story seems disjointed.
            The wedding party in the story begins as custom in that culture dictates. A first invitation notice had gone out-- a kind of “Save the date!” that has become common again in our time. Then, when the banquet is ready, the host’s servants go out to summon the guests to come. That’s when things start to fall apart.
            First, the invited guests seem to treat the invitation as a joke and refuse to come. Some of the invitees even assault and kill the king’s servants. What happens in these verses is troubling. And so, I wondered:  Does this sound like Jesus talking in these verses?  I don’t think so.
            So, it makes sense to me that many biblical scholars think that the original parable that Jesus told can be seen by deleting verses 6-7    and that Matthew or his source added the extra verses--the ones about how the invitees seized the king’s slaves and killed them    and how the enraged king destroyed the murderers and burned their city--to turn Jesus’ parable into an allegory of Christian history.  
            Tom Long suggests that the implausible details-- like people killing other people and a military action that destroys the city over a rejected party invitation-- highlight the fact that Matthew intends this story to be read as an allegory, and that his first readers would have known how to decode the details.[2]
            At the close of the first part of the story, we have a symbolic picture of Matthew’s church. His readers could have recognized themselves in the story, gathered at the banquet as last-minute replacements, both “good and bad” people.
            The story gets puzzling again when a wedding guest shows up dressed inappropriately for a wedding celebration at the palace. The king reacts harshly. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” 
            If you think about it-- if the guest wasn’t expecting to attend a fancy party when he left in the morning to work in the field or tend his shop-- he wouldn’t have packed a wedding robe. But, again, this isn’t an ordinary story, but an allegory, and the wedding robe stands for something else.
            John Calvin, in his commentary on this text, suggests that two passages from the apostle Paul help to explain the meaning. In Romans 13:14 we read that we must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and in Galatians 3:27 that because we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.”
            The wedding garment is a symbol for putting on the baptismal garment of Christ…  being attired in the new self, created in God’s own likeness…  clothing oneself with the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience of one who belongs to the kingdom of God.[3]
            So, what’s going on in this strange parable? More importantly: what was Matthew’s-- and Jesus’-- main point?
            I think it’s mainly about responding to an invitation.  More importantly, it’s about how we respond. The parable reminds us that being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live.
            We know Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God. All are invited. But that invitation requires us to do something. It requires us to put Jesus’ words into action.  You need to come to the feast and wear the right garment-- clothed with Christ-- to show that you’ve accepted the invitation.[4]
            What does that look like?
            We find one answer three chapters later, in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  There Jesus tells us how we will be judged. It depends on how we treat the “least” of his brothers and sisters. Do we feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Welcome the stranger?  As we do it unto the “least” of these, we do it unto Jesus.
            Bread for the World Sunday is an opportunity to join others in praying for those who struggle with hunger and food insecurity-- and to re-dedicate ourselves to efforts that help end hunger. Our prayerful work to end hunger is a response to the Gospel’s invitation to take part in the banquet of God’s mercy and abundance that is ours through Jesus Christ.
            Our prayers are especially urgent at this time. South Sudan is suffering from a devastating famine, and famine threatens Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Drought is spreading throughout other parts of Africa. Humanitarian assistance and long-term solutions to hunger are more important than ever.
            Bread for the World reminds us that nearly 16 million children in the United States, in one of the richest countries in the world — that’s almost one in five — live in households that struggle to put food on the table. Many of these children have parents who have jobs and work hard, but whose wages aren’t high enough to cover the high costs of rent, transportation, and utilities — and daily meals.
            So, our federal government’s feeding programs serve as a lifeline for vulnerable children and families. Because children are hit especially hard by the effects of hunger and malnutrition, nutrition programs aimed at children are particularly important.  A healthy start in life — even before a child is born — pays off for years, in terms of intellectual development --not only for individual children and families, but for communities and our nation as a whole.
            Only one out of every 20 grocery bags that feed people who are hungry come from church food pantries and other private charities.   Federal nutrition programs, from school meals to SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), provide the rest.   Our government’s child nutrition programs serve millions of children each year. 
Locally, and in the short term, we are helping to alleviate hunger when we give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program through our Two Cents a Meal or Cents-ability offering… when we support Church World Service…when we support the mission of the Open Door or Focus Hope or volunteer at Gleaners or support Blessings in a Backpack.

            But we also need to work on the systemic causes of hunger.   For a lot of us, hunger and poverty seem overwhelming.   We don’t have to do it alone. 
            Bread for the World is a faith-based education and advocacy organization that I’ve belonged to for some years.  The reason I personally support Bread for the World is because they have a remarkable record of helping to win passage of bipartisan legislation that addresses hunger.   As a result of this advocacy, children in the United States receive vital nutrition.   Emergency food reaches refugees from famine and conflict in Africa and elsewhere.  Agricultural development is enabling hungry people in various parts of the world to grow enough food to feed their families.
            If you want to help Bread for the World with this important, persistent advocacy work, you are invited to give them a donation.  Or you could commit yourself to sending letters to your elected representatives in Congress.  I’ll post a link on the church Facebook page and send one in an email to help you do this advocacy work, if you feel led to do so.
            It took me between five and ten minutes to personalize the form letter at the website, which was then automatically sent to my congressional representatives.  It’s a small thing, but it’s important.  It’s a way to act prayerfully and faithfully.
            As Teresa of Avila famously put it, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours… no hands but yours…  no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which God’s compassion will look upon the world.  Yours are the feet with which God will go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which God will bless others now."
            When we put on Christ, we are called to serve—to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  When we respond to Christ’s call and work together, we can help to change the conditions and the policies that allow hunger to persist. 
            We are called to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our house… to care for basic needs of those who are marginalized.
            Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God promises us that we will not have to do this alone.  When we call, the LORD will answer.  When we cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”[5] If we remove the yoke, the speaking of evil, if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, Then our light shall rise in the darkness.

            This is a blessed promise and vision: 
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places…
you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… 
you shall be called the repairer of the breach.
the restorer of streets to live in.
            So be it!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 15, 2017 

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 246.
[3] Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10-12;
[4] James Martin, SJ, “Will You Accept Jesus’ Invitation?” A reflection on Matthew 22:1-14, in Bread for the World Sunday 2017.
[5] Isaiah 58

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