Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 22:1-10
Presence in an ordered service of divine worship, your presence here today for instance, is one sign of trust that in this life we are being addressed from beyond. Your presence this morning is an indication, a witness if you will, to your intimation or confidence or something in between, that you are hearing voices, that you are called, spoken to, addressed. What voice do you hear? What characterizes the voice you sense from beyond the bounds of time and space?
By the way, this sensibility created Methodism. Our movement was given voice in this question. Wesley put it a little differently: “Do you know God to be a pardoning God?” What voice do you hear in the reading today? The parable of the wedding banquet, retold in Matthew from a kinder Lukan version, rests on this conviction of a divine beckoning and calling. Here the call is part invitation, part warning, and part summons.
Do you hear a voice of invitation?
I think we seldom recognize what a powerful thing an invitation can be. In composing this point I had to stop for a while to let the flood of memory subside along the riverbank of understanding.
In late 1978 we were beginning to adjust to the thought of a first child on the way. Some of you are adjusting to that thought today. Later that winter Jan fell ill and was hospitalized at six months. Surgery was required to remove an ovarian cyst. We were very frightened - at such invasive action, at the prospect of a child lost, at the possibility of even greater danger. We relied on families and friends and young faith. We prayed like you do when you have nothing else. In the time that followed, in the weeks of recuperation, I had a call from an old friend, Bill Swales. He had been thinking about our condition. He called to invite us to take a church in Ithaca. “You can finish school long distance. Forest Home is not much of a church, but it is open. And we want you to come home.” On the strength of that invitation, carried along the veteran voice of trusted superintendent, we changed our plans, and 25 years later the formative power of that humble human beckoning looms very large indeed.
We know the power of an invitation when we hungrily receive one heartily desired. Nothing in all the world ever happened between persons without invitations. Every sermon is in some way an invitation to decision for Christian discipleship.
You receive today, again, a personal invitation. The invitation is meant for you, sent to you, an event for you. You are invited to attend the wedding of heaven and earth, to lead a godly life, to lead a life worthy of God, to live in faith and by a conviction, which is a trust, faith is a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth, if we had all proof we want we would not have all the faith we need. Will you come to the banquet?
The voice of invitation is an enticement, a coaxing, a luring, a courting. The board is spread, the meat and drink are prepared. All is well in the house. This open invitation is the mark of Christianity at its best. This invitation is a sign of respect for the diversity of the creation, lived out in tolerance of differences. And what is tolerance but to listen, listen, listen? This church, for all our faults, exemplifies such an openness and tolerance of difference. All too often a church is made up of “moral people who have not time for Jesus, and little interest in the joyful news of the kingdom of God.” This invitation is not only open and far-flung; the invitation also goes out with a note attached: “the food will be tasty”. In this kingdom there is concern for quality as well as for quantity. There is something satisfying to be had at this meal. We are not always fully awake to what is available within the tender web of human relations.
You remember that St. Matthew, the Evangelist, has a passion. It is evangelism. The point of the Gospel of Mathew the Evangelist is that he is an evangelist. This is his love. His first love. To seek the lost, gather the dispersed, church the unchurched. And it is a passionate love. I can see your passions in the red cheeks, changed breathing, throbbing temples, scowls and sighs, angers and fears and hopes and dreams that attend them. Music, architecture, history, homily, mission, symbol, country, group - these inspire passion. Mostly good. Matthew offers the gift, divinely wrapped, of another, different passion: sharing a first encounter with Christ with those who do not know a single verse, cannot recite a single psalm, cannot describe baptism and communion, do not have a favorite hymn, and have no experience of church committee meetings. This is the great joy of faith, to share it. We only have what we can give away.
The fun of teaching knots is to show the tenderfoot the square knot. Everything else is derivative. The joy of coaching swimming is to help someone learn to float. All the rest is a corallary. The excitement of instruction in a language is the alphabet and the first declension and the initial vocabulary. All the rest is subordinate.
Matthew’s passion, offered to Asbury First as a new gift this autumn, is invitation. This is the gift that truly keeps on giving. Find the joy of a treasure in a field, a lost coin found, a prodigal fed, a seed planted, a mustard seed nurtured, and a wedding feast celebrated, and you have found St. Matthew’s passion.
The capacity to offer a genuine invitation depends on the measure of verbal kindness, and so personal trust, within a community. Let me ask you to pause for a moment and think about the way we speak.
• What words are on our lips in worship?
• What goes into our conversation at the dinner table?
• What do we say to each other over morning coffee?
• What do we tell our children as we tuck them in at night?
• What news do we share during commercials?
• What is the quality of our discourse?
We are invited to feast with one another. We are invited somehow to communicate to one another that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
You know that Jan and I spend much of the summer on a lake in Central New York. I have overburdened you in the past with reminiscence about a lovely college town nearby. There are other towns too. One is the little hamlet of Morrisville, whose banners carry the slogan, ‘One step ahead…’ I mentally add, “..of the sheriff”. Visually Morrisville offers little. It is a town that never really found itself. Like many lives we can name. You will notice there the sagging roofs, old buildings, gas stations and pizza shops and bars, and a struggling two-year college. It is nothing to look at. But I must bear witness also to what I hear in this visually vacuous village.
In the course of one hot afternoon, I am addressed with kindness. In the car shop: “the tires need rotating”. Neither greed nor pride, but honest concern. In the grocery, over bottles returned: “How are you doing without him?” Neither perseverating grasp nor idle curiosity, but genuine concern. In the hardware, “Did you hear about Bill’s wife?” Neither gossip nor chit chat but heartfelt worry. In the Town Hall, “It’s Rev. Hill”. Neither flattery nor false humility but genuine concern. For all its visual vacuity, one hears there a verbal beauty that is cultural prelude to the gospel. Those who have cultural ears to hear, may yet hear.
How many of us, by contrast, live lives that are visually beautiful but verbally vacuous? Maybe that is why Luke, in his telling of this parable, has the invitation go out to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. To begin to invite, let us begin by attending to the character of our conversation as a community.
But the master’s call, as Matthew’s darkening tale reveals, is not heeded. The invitation is “taken lightly”, or as Matthew puts it, “they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants and treated them shamefully.” As they had, we are meant to interpret the prophets of old.
The divine calling does not stop, but we now hear a second dimension of it. Here the call is not so much an invitation as it is a warning. One of the most startling points in the study of the parables is to notice the difference between Luke’s account of the story in Luke 14, and today’s reading. Matthew is angry. Here a man has become a king, those who refuse are not forgotten but violently killed, those who miss their chance are not worthy, and many are called but few are chosen. It is hard for me not to overhear some bitter church experience here, perhaps related to the persecution under the Emperor Domitian in the last decade of the first century.
While we may chafe at Matthew’s intensity, we can readily appreciate this new voice, a voice of warning. Jesus exists for us at some points as a warning. A warning that there does come a time when it is too late. All the parables have this element in them. The mercy of God is eternal, never ending, all pervading. But the time to accept the invitation is passing; the time to accept is the eternal now. There comes a time when it is too late. When we are sensitive, we hear this same warning all around us.
Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society-a company, a community, or any other collectivity-must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”
Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”
Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about motives: “The greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from selflessness in the service of a great cause”.
Here is a Methodist Bishop, Sharon Christopher, writing for all our Bishops this week: “A preemptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel, our church’s teaching, and our conscience. Preemptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict”.
Here is our Bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.
Here are the sermons offered from this pulpit two years ago, along a village green, in which all the predicament of our present perils were forewarned.
There does come a time when it is too late. The parables shout this warning. We cannot play forever with life-threatening nuclear weapons. We cannot supply the world with arms and expect them never to be used. We cannot applaud forever a narrow nationalism ill suited to a global village. There does come a time when it is too late. The parables gracefully warn us of that time. Those of us laden with much property, much knowledge, much position may have a harder time hearing this than we would otherwise.
(The sad story which Matthew alone knows about the poor bloke who has no wedding robe apparently is a warning, either moral or spiritual. If moral, it is a warning that grace is free but not cheap. If spiritual, it is a warning that those invited to a daily feast should appreciate and celebrate.)
The call to the banquet is an invitation and warning, but in the end it is a summons. “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find…and those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Gather them all! Good and bad together! Such is the kingdom of heaven. For the corporate community lives by its ability to make distinctions, this blending of good and bad is anathema. For a community that lives on its ability to produce excellence, this common mixture is anathema. “We cook for the common people” said even Origen.
An open, general summons goes out.
Last week, during the sermon before communion, we were invited to think about meals from our time growing up. I recalled in one of our churches long ago the memory of an elderly man, thinking of the summons of a school bell. Every morning he would prepare to go off into the cold, at age 6. For the winter he would cover himself from head to toe in layers of clothing. Then his mother would take a huge pancake from the griddle and put one in each mitten to keep his hands warm. The summons came. The bell rang. He dressed, prepared, and went.
I sat at the traffic light the other day and wondered whether we have the space to receive such a voice. I watched a woman across the traffic light.
Perhaps she is on the run from dawn to dusk. While the coffee is brewing, she throws in a load of wash. While the wash runs, she pours the kids breakfast cereal. While they eat she combs her hair and puts on the day’s war paint. Dressed for success, she drives to work, listening to the news and planning comments for the morning meetings. She remembers a football game 12 years earlier. While she types, she reviews the winter wardrobes (son needs boots, daughter a coat). Over lunch she writes a note to her mother: “thinking of you”. While mailing the note she realizes her high school’s 20-year reunion is next year. On the way home she stops to buy the groceries and gas. While fixing dinner, she calls a friend. A fleeting image of a happy day in the summer puts a catch in her throat. While on the phone, she mops up a spilled glass of milk. While serving dessert, she thinks about the evening meeting, remembering that she agreed to do the devotions. This produces a moment of terror. While the sitter bathes the kids, she heads for the meeting, realizing that the bottles need to be returned. Maybe tomorrow. While the meeting drones on, she plans tomorrow’s dinner. At home, she drifts off to sleep, wondering if the kids have clothes for the next day.
For her, for me, for you, this summons is delivered: work is not meant to drive out love. No, nor are any other penultimate passions meant to take the place of God, the God of love in our lives.
I am convinced that in Jesus Christ, light came into a world of darkness. In him we are called - invited, warned, summoned---into the kingdom of heaven. This call is not an abstract, universal bellow. It is a whispering that touches and knocks at the door of every human heart. Jesus teaches of a pardoning God, who is quick to forgive. Jesus tells us of a gathering God, who gathers good and bad together. In him has the light shown in the darkness.
What voice do you hear?How will you respond?