Sermon for Sunday, October 15th, 2017
I love it whenever we get a scripture that describes God’s kingdom as a banquet and this morning we are doubly blessed because we get two: both Isaiah and Matthew talk about God preparing a feast or compare the Kingdom of heaven to a banquet. As I am always thinking about my next meal, I find the idea of heaven as some sort of eternal buffet very gratifying.
It was a few Friendship Fairs ago that a couple of our industrious parishioners decided to edit and publish a new parish cookbook. Incidentally, we still have plenty of copies, so if you are new to our parish come and see me after mass and I would be glad to give you one as a gift. As a part of this project, one of our editors decided to send a request for recipes to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Now of course, nobody here imagines that her majesty spends much time in the kitchen, but it seemed like a clever idea and who knows, maybe one of the palace chefs would take pity on us and send us a recipe. This was during the height of the Downton Abbey series, and Highclere Castle came through with a couple recipes, so you never know. Well Jane, who was responsible for this idea did get a response from one of the Queen’s secretaries very politely declining to submit any recipes. Now you must understand that in addition to being a foodie I am something of a rabid monarchist. Yes, I am an American citizen, but I happen to think that constitutional monarchy is a perfectly good form of government and I am a huge fan of the royal family and her majesty. I am the sort of person who would stand on the street corner for hours just to see her drive by (I Haven’t had the opportunity to do it but I would). So I was endlessly amused by the fact that we actually got a response from the palace. It didn’t matter that it was a stock response from a volunteer secretary, what mattered was that it came from the palace on official letterhead. If you turn to the front of the cookbook, you will find there a scan of said letter, forever memorialized in the pages of our book.
Now I just want to point out here the subtle craziness of this: this is a REJECTION LETTER. This is a rejection letter from the palace and I still found it so meaningful that I thought it needed to be bound and included in the book. This isn’t an invitation to tea. It isn’t a recipe for the Queen’s favorite scones. It’s a rejection letter from a secretary, a very sweet rejection letter, but a rejection letter nonetheless. Here it is though, right in the front of our cookbook, right where I think it belongs. That is how I respond to a rejection from the palace…can you imagine how I would respond to an invitation?
Let me tell you…it’s probably never going to happen (I’m not that crazy), but if it ever did, if for some reason the Queen decided that she needed a few more priests at her parties to balance out all the politicians and celebrities, and if I were to come home one day and discover a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office slipped into my letterbox inviting me to any event whatsoever at the palace, I can promise you…I’m gonna go.
There isn’t much in this world that would keep me from going. I don’t care if I have to take a redeye flight and turn around and come right back. I’m going to go. I’d probably even buy a new suit, just so that I looked my best. It wouldn’t matter if I was sick, tired, busy, whatever…I would find a way, because it would be important to me. What an honor it would be. What a privilege it would be. How many people get invited to be the guest at a royal banquet? What would make it especially meaningful is that there is no reason for me to be invited: I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a politician, I haven’t made a significant contribution to British culture, I’m not even a citizen. I’m just your average admirer from across the pond. And maybe you all think I’m a bit eccentric, and maybe I am, but if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to put money on the fact that if any of you received a similar invitation, you’d do the same thing.
I don’t care what your citizenship is, what your politics are, or what you think about monarchy, I’m willing to bet that if you got an invitation to the Queen’s house for dinner, you’d take it seriously. If there was any way you could go, you would go. Who wouldn’t? And I’m also willing to bet that you would take it so seriously that when you showed up for dinner you’d look pretty sharp. Maybe you wouldn’t buy a new suit, but you’d probably wear the best one you had, because this would be a special occasion. Someone really important was taking notice of you. You would take the invitation seriously. I think that’s pretty much human nature. I may be a monarchist, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone would refuse the Queen’s invitation.
That is what makes the parable in this morning’s gospel such a ridiculous story. A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends out invitations, but the guests don’t come. He sends out messengers to the guests to invite them again, and this time they kill the messengers. Finally, he tells his servants to just invite anyone that will come, and even then someone has such little respect for the invitation that he can’t be bothered to change out of his street clothes. This is a ridiculous story. Jesus knows that it is a ridiculous story. His listeners understand that this is a ridiculous story, because for the most part, that’s not how people act toward kings and queens. If an invitation comes from a king or queen you take it seriously. You don’t ignore it, you certainly don’t kill the messenger, and when you show up you show the proper respect to your host by trying to be and look the best version of yourself that you can be. Jesus knows that the story is ridiculous and unbelievable and that I think is part of his point. We know that we wouldn’t treat an earthly king this way, but how do we treat the King of Heaven?
People get squirmy with this Gospel story because they don’t like the part about the guy getting thrown out in the end for wearing the wrong thing. But I don’t think the point of this story is the behavior of the king at all. Jesus isn’t trying to say that God is like this King; what he’s trying to say is that we are like those guests. His main point isn’t how God acts towards us; it’s how we act toward God. He tells this absurd story so that we will recognize the dramatic difference between how we treat God and how we treat the leaders of this world. We treat the heavenly King is ways that we would never dream of treating an earthly king. We ignore his invitation, we kill his messengers, and even if we openly accept his invitation, still we often prove ourselves unwilling to take it seriously, unwilling to change, literally or figuratively. We don’t take God and God’s invitation nearly as seriously as we would take the invitation from any earthly king or queen. That, I think, is Jesus’s main point.
In Jesus we know God to be a God of forgiveness and grace. We know God to be merciful. I don’t think that God is tossing people into the outer darkness for not being dressed appropriately. We know that the heavenly king is infinitely better, more just and more merciful than any earthly king. An earthly king or queen will reject you…here’s proof. Earthly rulers are fallible. They are human. They don’t share their recipes. Although I am a monarchist, I can understand why some people aren’t because if you look at history there have been plenty of inept and sometimes even wicked kings and queens. But we know that the King of Kings, the heavenly king is so much better. So if we are willing to take an invitation from an earthly king very seriously, shouldn’t we take an invitation from a heavenly king that much more seriously?
We all have been invited to the most amazing banquet. We have been invited to share not just in God’s table here, at this church, but we have been invited to partake of the heavenly banquet. I know that Holy Communion may not seem like a real meal. Just a small piece of bread and a tiny sip of wine, but consider for a minute what is truly happening here. The God and King of all creation has invited us poor sinners to a banquet. We don’t deserve to be here. There is no reason that God should welcome us here, but he does. We come together with other Christians, not just in this place, but across the world and across time. Those we have loved and see no longer, they are here. The saints of God throughout the ages, they are here. This is a foretaste of the eternal heavenly banquet that God, the King of Heaven, has invited us to, and the food that he offers us is his own life. No earthly king or queen could do that. The invitation to communion with God is the most important invitation we will ever receive. It is a royal invitation, so shouldn’t we treat it that way?
Let’s face it, even those of us who accept God’s invitation, often don’t do it with the true joy and enthusiasm that it deserves. Maybe we are willing to show up and eat, but do we care enough to change, to be better, not to be phony, but to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Are we coming to this feast reluctantly on our way to someplace else or is this where we really want to be? Are we excited to accept this invitation? Are we really taking the King of Heaven’s invitation seriously?
The truth is, I’m probably never going to get an invitation to dinner with the Queen. She’s a very important and busy person, and it’s no surprise that I’m not at the top of her guest list. Don’t get me wrong I still wanna go and I’d be thrilled to get one. But it’s ok. I have to remember that I have already received a royal invitation. A far greater and more important king has taken notice of me and invited me to dine at his table. Can I take his invitation just as seriously?