A Free Invitation

+ A sermon given for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)/Ordinary 28A at Peace Lutheran Church, Puyallup, WA on October 15, 2017 +

Text: Isaiah 25:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As has been pointed out to me this morning, I am not Pastor Nate.
My name is Paul Eldred and let me say what an honor it is to be with you this morning. I appreciate the welcome that I have received and it is a joy to be among you for worship.
I also bring greetings from Holden Village. I just returned home last night after a time serving there as interim pastor.
And as a wonderful surprise, I was able to welcome my friends Pastor Nate and Bethany when they arrived on Friday, which explains why I am here this morning instead of them!

I remember when I got married a few years ago and the stress that came with planning the wedding.
We had to make sure the food was just right, we had to decide what we were going to wear for the special day, and even doing all the cake tastings and needing to decide…well, ok actually that last part was pretty great.
But nothing compared to the stress of deciding on the guest list.
Who were we going to invite?
Who gets a plus one?
Who were we going to have to cut from the list because we just didn’t have room in the space or in the budget?
And after all this work, we wanted to make sure everyone we invited would be there.

So naturally, when the RSVPs came rolling in, I made a list of everyone who declined the invitation and sent my hitmen to go force them to come to the wedding or burn their houses down.
And when the wedding day came and my cousin showed up in jeans, I of course had her bound hand and feet and through her out of the church and into the alley.

Wait, what?

Of course, this is absolutely absurd.
We don’t do that.
Who would ever do that?
But that is exactly what happened in our gospel text today.

If I’m going to be honest, today is one of those days where we speak those words after the gospel reading: “The Gospel of our Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” and I wonder – is it? Is this really good news?

Today we heard the third in a series of parables from Jesus as he is standing in the Temple in Jerusalem and addressing the chief priests and the Pharisees.
Two weeks ago, we heard about the two sons and how we should do the will of God.
Last week was the parable of the vineyard owner who shows mercy by sending messengers again and again.
But this week’s parable is a little different.

Jesus tells us a story about a king who hosts a wedding banquet and sends invitations to all of the elites in his kingdom.
For whatever reason, every person invited declines the invitation and eventually “the king was enraged” and sent his troops to murder them and destroy their city.
Pretty frightening stuff.
Then it seems to get better when the king, desperate for people to come to the banquet, gathers people in from the streets, “both good and bad” until the wedding hall was full.
But then we have this ending – the king sees that one of these people who was rounded up from the streets isn’t dressed right so he orders him bound and thrown out of the hall.
What are we to make of all of this?
Where exactly is the gospel?

Now in our English translation of this passage, we hear Jesus say “the kingdom of God may be compared to” this story. And for a long time, theologians and pastors have wrestled with how this story could depict our understanding of God’s kingdom.
There has been so much work done to find the good news in this text.
But, in my opinion, these explanations have glossed over the immense violence in this text.
As I examined this text deeper this week, I noticed a number of commentators who wrote that the Greek word may be better translated in a passive voice – so rather than Jesus meaning “this is what the kingdom of God is like,” perhaps he is saying, “the kingdom of God has been compared to” with the intention of setting up a false comparison.
For me, this possibility has been hugely important because what Jesus is describing in this parable sounds more like the work of a tyrant than a loving God.
It sounds like Jesus is describing a ruler whose ego is so fragile that when his invited guests decline, he unleashes his rage, un-invites the guests, and then surrounds himself by anyone he can find to feel loved.
It sounds like Jesus is describing a system where the ruler promises abundance and the good life, but he can only achieve those goals through force, intimidation or exclusion.
This doesn’t sound like the gospel of Jesus Christ to me.
Jesus didn’t work through violence but through love.
He didn’t spread the gospel through intimidation, but through compassion.
And I wonder if he is telling this story to show the absurdity of the system that has surrounded him all of his life – the system he has been working to transform.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaa3jaaaajguwytmymmqylta3zjktndc5mi1imgi0lwnhzjywytbhngm1zaWe must remember that Jesus spent his entire life living under the oppression of the Roman Empire.
Rome was considered to be the height of civilization – an empire of abundance and peace.
But as Jesus and the people of Israel saw firsthand, this Empire could only expand and maintain its standard of living through military domination and the exploitation of those under its power.
Throughout his earthy ministry, Jesus had been traveling and working with those suffering under this oppression – the poor, the sick, the hopeless – and offering them a different vision for how life could be.
At this point in the gospel, Jesus is standing in Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power in the region, and addressing the religious authorities who had not been using their positions to care for their people but instead colluded with their foreign oppressors.
Just days before this gospel text, Jesus entered Jerusalem in an alternative form of a triumphant processional – not surrounded by military might and proclaiming his importance, but riding alone on a donkey.
And just a couple days after he tells this parable, Jesus is deemed by the people in power to be so threatening and offensive that they execute him on a Roman cross – a punishment reserved for the worst and most dangerous criminals.

It seems to me that the king that Jesus is describing in this parable stands completely against the entire message of the gospel he came to proclaim.
It seems to me that Jesus is trying to show the absurdity of the system that has oppressed his people and continues to oppress people throughout the world.
Perhaps the king stands for the false promises that we have been given by the empires of our own day promising happiness through consumption of goods and products made through exploitive labor or workers making less than a living wage.
Or the promises of peace through political brinksmanship and ever increasing military armament.
Or the promises of comfort and quality of life coming from products that devastate the environment and produce global climate change.

And for far too long, I think this vision that Jesus is deriding in this parable has been twisted to be the vision of God’s kingdom.
This passage has been used to justify the evils of anti-Semitism.
It has been used to foment hatred against those who have a different understanding of God than we do.
It has been used as a basis for forced conversions to Christianity that happen through these same violent means that we see the king employ in this parable.

columbus-and-natives1Just this past week, many in this country celebrated Columbus Day.
But for many people, this day only served as a reminder of the violence and atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus and countless other colonizers when they stumbled upon this already populated continent.
One method used by these invaders was to force the Native peoples into converting to Christianity – often through brutally violent means.
This of course only led to centuries of dehumanization and mistreatment of the Native peoples of this continent.
I am thankful that our denomination, the ELCA, has repudiated the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which was the theological justification for these actions, but it is still clear that we have much work to do to heal these wounds.

Often in parables like these, we try to identify the different characters and who they might stand for.
For a long time, it has been assumed that the king represents God and the son is Jesus.
But I wonder if we have been misreading this all along.
Because the person who seems to be the most Christ-like in this story is not the one whose wedding banquet has a forced attendance and strict dress code, but instead the guest we see at the end.
The one who comes in and silently protests the actions of this tyrant king.
Who will not conform to the oppressive nature of this system but instead stands in silent opposition to it – his very presence a protest.

what-is-truth02And wouldn’t you know it – just a few chapters later, we see this same thing enacted.
Jesus is bound by the authorities and brought before Pontius Pilate – the local ruler of the Roman Empire.
Pilate asks him why he has been protesting and subverting the will of the system and Jesus stands there, silent. He refuses to say a single word to him.
So they bind him, beat him, and throw him onto a cross.

This is the view we get of our God – one who stands against the tyrants of the world and works for transformation.
Because, as Isaiah shows us, God acts against the oppressors in our lives and works for the liberation of all.
God seeks to destroy tyranny, not instill it.

weddingfeastOur God does not force us into submission, but invites us into a community of life.
Jesus did not come to destroy those who rejected him, but offered a free invitation for us to join him at the table.
We are not forced to come to this church week after week, we are not forced to believe in our God, but we are invited and welcomed into this life-giving place of love and acceptance.
And the moment we are compelled to come to this table of life and the fellowship of our God, it is no longer a free and loving gift – but instead is a work we must do lest we face the wrath of God.

As we have seen these past weeks, our God does not conform to the ways of this world that are steeped in violence and oppression, but brings God’s transformative power of life and grace.

I think that Jesus is calling us to reject the false promises that this world has given us and listen to God’s invitation to the feast of life.
God’s vision for the great banquet is not this forced wedding feast, but the table that God freely prepares for us all where Christ is the feast.
A feast that Isaiah described in our first lesson where God invites, not forces, all people to a feast of rich food and well-aged wines.
A feast we get to preview each time we gather around this table of life where we are transformed into agents of change in the world.
A table where God welcomes all people to feast on this bread of heaven and cup of salvation.
This is the feast of God’s victory over the oppressive ways of this world – one that we can joyously join as we freely respond to God’s open invitation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s