Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 20

9 October 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 22:1-14 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

When it comes to food and dining, few people in America come close to New Orleanians. The old joke is that we spend lunchtime talking about where we will eat dinner. While food is, strictly speaking, a way for our bodies to be nourished – it is also so much more. Eating is a celebration of life – of the gifts our Lord has given us – going all the way back to the garden of Eden. God could have made eating a mindless activity of survival, but instead, in his divine love for his creation, made it what Louisianans might call “joie de vivre” - the joy of life.

A French writer named Valéry writes:

“What is more important than the meal? Doesn’t the least observant man-about-town look upon the implementation and ritual progress of a meal as a liturgical prescription? Isn’t all of civilization apparent in these careful preparations, which consecrate the spirit’s triumph over a raging appetite?”

This is, perhaps, why eating is traditionally accompanied by so much ritual, formality, and manners. In the ancient world, dining was a social statement. Great care was taken not to eat with certain kinds of people – and placement at the table was a way of expressing honor and importance. Jesus scandalized the religiously upright people of his day by eating with various kinds of sinners. His acceptance of “table fellowship” with prostitutes and thieves was controversial – to say the least.

In our more democratic culture, such concepts as “table fellowship” might seem quaint. One of the few times we revive this notion of a pecking order at the dinner table is at a banquet – where typically, guests are seated in order of importance – with the really honored guests being segregated at a head table.

Our Gospel reading is a parable of Jesus that is centered on a banquet.

The father, who is a king, arranges his son’s wedding – and of course, there will be a reception. Invitations are sent, and preparations for the party begin. Food and drinks need to be purchased. The hall must be decorated. Servants must be scheduled. It’s a lot of work, but finally, the big day comes. But nobody shows up. Imagine the insult to the king! Imagine his hurt feelings. Imagine the disrespect shown to the prince and his bride-to-be!

At best, the invited guests mock the king and his son, and tell him they have better things to do. Other invited guests are downright violent – beating and even killing the king’s messengers who have come to remind them of the wedding. It goes without saying that the king is furious. He judges those who have been so ruthless and disrespectful. But, as they say, the show must go on. The wedding will proceed, followed by the reception. Only there will be different guests invited to the banquet. On such short notice, the king has little choice but to fling the doors wide open and invite everyone. He sends his servants into the streets, and beckons everyone to come to the feast: the good and the bad, “come and be glad, greatest and least, come to the feast!”

No more is the banquet to be only for those connected by ties of blood to the king and his son. The banquet is not merely for the upright in the community, the religious, the wealthy, and the well-connected. No, this feast is for all, including the poor, the sinful, those without family ties or business connections. People from all walks of life come into the hall to eat the finest of the king’s bread and the choicest of the king’s wine. Can you imagine the sense of joy to those who never thought in a million years they would be deemed worthy to dine in the palace?

In the midst of this joy and thanksgiving, an intruder is spotted. He’s easy to point out because he is not wearing the proper attire – for at this banquet, there is a dress code – and the king himself supplies the raiment. But this fellow is not wearing the wedding garment, and thus he was not invited to the feast. Perhaps he was one who had earlier spurned the son and shown disrespect to the father. Or maybe he just wanted to join the feast on his own terms, in his own garments that he thinks are as nice as those supplied by the king. Maybe he just likes to stand out and be noticed for who he is – and not be just another face in the crowd wearing a wedding garment. Who knows? But for whatever reason, this person is not welcome at this feast. He is bound and put into a prison of darkness. For many are called, but few are chosen.

Those listening to Jesus preach knew what he was talking about. The Jews knew their own history of spurning the Father and beating and killing his messengers: the prophets. Jesus is himself the Son in this parable. Jesus is being wedded to his bride: the Church. The banquet is the ongoing and eternal heavenly feast. The Lord had called his people Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He continued to stand by them even in their unfaithfulness, even as they sought idols and murdered the prophets. But when God sent his Son, they rejected him, they turned down the invitation to the wedding feast, they mocked those who confessed Christ and they persecuted Christians in their own midst.

And so, God flung the doors wide open, going out into the byways, preaching the Gospel to those who would listen – largely to Gentiles. Jesus himself reached out to sinners that respectable religious people would never sit down at table with. Jesus invites all to his feast – the good and the bad, greatest and least are bid to come to the feast! Though Israel’s priests and scribes would not eat with the likes of us sinful Gentiles, the Father himself bids us to come to the feast. It doesn’t matter what our genealogy, race, ethnicity, station in life, occupation, or even reputation are. Our past sins are irrelevant. We are invited, and clothed for the occasion. For we are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus at our baptism. And that white baptismal gown is a meal ticket that grants us admittance to the feast. That baptismal garment makes us worthy to kneel at this rail and eat the finest of the king’s bread and the choicest of the King’s wine.

The Lord implemented his holy supper as an appetizer of eternity. Using simple, earthy – and yet sublime elements: bread and wine – Jesus himself dines with us, gives us his very flesh and blood which is the one all-availing sacrifice for our sins, and bids us to remain at his table – with all the saints and angels – for all eternity. There is a Greek icon of the last supper that is entitled: “The Mystical Meal.” Indeed, the Lord’s Supper is mystical, it is supernatural, it is the eternal God breaking into our space and time, allowing us to sit at table with Jesus just as surely as did his disciples.

Our Roman Catholic brethren speak of the “miracle of the Mass. And we agree with them on this point, as our own Lutheran Confessions forcefully declare: “Our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence.” We Lutherans, as did the early church, see ourselves as a eucharistic community – a gathering of people around Christ in his sacrament. We can no more not celebrate Holy Communion than we can decide not to breath air and drink water. Indeed, this holy banquet, this mystical meal, this miracle of the Mass is truly a eucharist – a feast of thanksgiving. Just as every Sunday is a mini-Easter to the Christian Church, so is every celebration of the Lord’s Supper a mini-Thanksgiving feast. Indeed, one of Martin Luther’s “marks of the Church” (that is to say, how to identify the true Christian Church) is the centrality of the sacraments. Holy Communion isn’t merely an add-on to the liturgy, it is our very life and breath. It is indeed how we can come to Jesus, and how he comes to us. It is our discipleship in action. And Jesus himself tells us how we are made disciples: by baptism and teaching. There is no other entrance into the church – not accepting Jesus as one’s savior, not by answering an altar call, not by living a life free from sin (as though any of us could truly do any of these things).

No, indeed, there is only one way to gain entry into the wedding feast of the Son. Those who seek to gain admittance to the Christian Church by a side entrance, by trickery or deceit, those who rely on the splendor of their own garments instead of depending on the king’s charity, those who seek admittance by their own means and according to their own abilities will find themselves in the prison of hell.

But what comfort we unworthy sinners have knowing that the King himself supplies the pristine white robe that covers our nakedness and filthiness! What a blessing that we have been called and chosen not by our own merits, but rather by the grace of God himself! And what joy we have knowing that we can partake of the foretaste of the feast Sunday after Sunday, joining Jesus at the table, at the mystical, miraculous meal, participating in the heavenly banquet that will have no end!

My dear brothers and sisters: The feast is ready. Come to the feast! The good and the bad, greatest and least, come to the feast! Now, and unto eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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