Accepting the invitation

RCL Year A, Proper 23

Just imagine what it would feel like, giving a big party and having no one show up.   Maybe it’s even happened to you once or twice – I hope not.  Sometimes church events are just about like that, of course!   But we can imagine what it would feel like:  humiliating; embarrassing; lonely; all those 7th grade fears made real.  We hear of a situation like this in today’s gospel reading.  But instead of identifying with the host of the party, it’s a little embarrassing to realize that we’re meant to identify with the callous folks who refuse to come.   And to realize that the parable we heard is the story of how we are guilty of humiliating God in this way just about every day.

The story is almost the same parable that is told in the gospel of Luke.  There is a village feast – a lot of people are invited, and everyone in the village knows the preparation is happening.  It’s like a save-the-date card is sent out.  Then when all is ready, the invitation comes again: come to the feast.  But those invited refuse to come, and give excuses for what they’re doing instead.  So the host of the party goes out and invites everyone else in the village, determined to have a party.  And all of those people come.  All are invited, the good and the bad alike; some refuse to come, but the party happens anyway.  It’s a wonderful vision of God’s inclusive kingdom.

That’s the way Luke tells it.  Matthew doesn’t leave it there, however.  He adds two details:  when the first guests refuse to come, the host of the party, a king in this version, sends his army and sacks their city.  And then Matthew tacks on that last little twist, the one about the wedding guest who’s there without the right clothes on.  It’s kind of a fly in the ointment to the grand inclusive vision, isn’t it?  Y’all come, but you darn well better come, and come ready and dressed, or else.  Yikes!

In Jesus’ time the meaning of the parable of the feast would have been clear.  God has come and invited Israel to the feast – the people of God, called throughout history to be a blessing, are now called to the banquet of his son the Messiah, Jesus.  But Israel refuses to come.  So God instead invites the nations, all the good and the bad of the Gentiles, pagans and Godfearers alike, and they come instead.  By the time Matthew’s gospel was being put together, Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 AD – in Matthew’s eyes, this is God’s judgment on Israel’s failure to respond to Jesus.  But Matthew’s version doesn’t let everyone else off the hook either:  the Gentiles have a responsibility as well – they too must respond to God’s invitation and be ready to be God’s people, or else.

Well, today is meant to be a sermon on stewardship.  I see a wonderful opportunity here before us with this parable.  We are invited, urgently, to the feast.  It is a royal banquet, lavish and generous.  It’s spread out right in front of us.  One form of the feast will be offered here next Saturday with sausages and lederhosen.  Will we accept God’s invitation?  Here’s a pledge card.  You know what will happen if you don’t fill it out and return it.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s really look at this invitation.  It is a lavish feast spread out before us.  It’s God’s offering to us:  all of creation in its goodness, the gift of life, the gift of loving relationship with one another.  Stop for a moment and really think of it.  We all have a long list of blessings to be thankful for, starting with being alive today.  People to love and be loved by.  Work to do.  Sunshine and rain.  We take all of this for granted far too often.  Stop and think right now – I mean really do it – think of 5 things you are thankful for.

…Was it easy? Or was it hard?  Did you know that they’ve done brain scans on people who spent 30 minutes thinking of things they’re grateful for, and then another 30 minutes thinking of negative things, things that aren’t going right.  After the gratitude sessions, the brains were healthy and functioning.  After the negativity sessions, the brains showed seriously decreased functioning in the areas responsible for processing information, memory and emotional control.   There have been other studies on the effects of gratitude on stress levels and blood pressure and the like.  The message:  It’s good for us to be grateful.  It’s bad for us not to be grateful.  Surely we can each think of five things to be thankful for?

But we don’t do it that often, do we?  We get distracted by the negative things, the worry things, the tasks.  Sorry, we say, I can’t come to the feast today.  I’ve got work to do, I’ve got things to attend to.  There’s a lot to distract us.  It all seems important.  Someone has to look to the bottom line, after all.  Spiritual talk is lovely for Sunday, but Monday morning rolls around and then we have to get serious.  Paying the mortgage and buying gas and food bills are all important, and we’ve got to keep our nose to the grindstone to focus.  Sometimes those other things seem so important that the feast just doesn’t measure up.  Gratitude?  Whatever.  Stop and pray?  I’m too busy for that.  Quiet time with God, or time spent serving others?  Sure, if I have some time left over after I get everything else done.  Give my money?  Like I said – if I have some left over.

One commentator on this gospel parable pointed out that the real problem with those invited folks who refuse to come is that they essentially kick God out of the kingdom.  They’ve got it sewn up already.  They have important things to do and they’re busy doing them, and they don’t have time for silly dinners.  This is what it looks like to live righteously and as a model citizen.  That’s a waste of time.  No thanks, God.  I’m busy.  No wonder Jesus is a little put out.

Do you remember the Pixar movie, ‘Finding Nemo’?  The seagulls were some of the more despicable characters in the film, as they are in real life.  And while all the other characters talked, the seagulls only said one word:  ‘Mine.’  Mine, mine, mine.  It’s our fatal flaw.  God creates, God gives, and we say simply, Mine.  My money.  My time.  My garden.  My priorities.

I recently saw a set of reflections on stewardship.  One of them was written by a lay person from a church in Kansas.  He wrote about how when he and his wife were young, they joined a church and were asked to pledge.  They were barely making it financially, and they simply didn’t see how they could spare anything for the church.  It was a struggle to find enough to give to the church after they’d paid all their bills.  But then something inspired them to reverse the order.  Instead of paying all their bills first and then giving what they could to the church, they gave to the church first, and then lived off the rest of it.  The writer doesn’t say what led them to make that choice, to be a ‘first-fruits giver,’ as he called it.  But he said that as soon as they did it, they always had enough.  The more they gave, to the church or to other charities or to people in need, the more they seemed to have.  And the more they received in other ways as well, in gratitude and in their own sense of joy.

I think what this couple did was realize a truth that’s hard for the rest of us to understand:  instead of thinking of their money as theirs, they thought of it as God’s.  They returned the first fruits to God, and trusted that God would take care of them for the rest.  It’s radical faith and trustfulness, living this way.  But what a witness:  to treat our resources, whether they be time or money or skills or other gifts, as real gifts.  Not ours to dole out as we see fit, but God’s.  God’s gifts to us, best used as God’s resources – us as stewards, not owners, of what we have.

That’s what accepting the invitation to the feast is about.  It’s realizing that everything is the feast – that life itself and all we have is a feast spread for us by God.  There’s nothing more important than this – there’s nothing else we have to go do instead.  Even pretending that there is anything else outside of the feast is false thinking – trying to have the kingdom while shutting God out of it.  We are invited to the feast and God wants us there wholeheartedly – not just coming for the food and leaving, but being there with our whole self…knowing and remembering that our whole self belongs to God, not to us.

When you start from that place, you can’t help but be grateful.  What you don’t have weighs a lot less than what you do have.  There’s such a feast – take and eat, and feast in your hearts, and be thankful.  Amen.