28th sunday in ordinary time
Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 25:1-9 | Psalm 23 | Philippians 4:1-9 |Matt. 22:1-14
The grace of God is serious business. It’s like this king who having been dismissed by those who should have known better has now thrown open the doors of the banquet hall to all and sundry. The good and the bad are invited – anyone who wants to come gets a chance to go to the palace and take part in the feast: a sumptuous spread normally reserved for the privileged, and the powerful.
Now for those of us used to reading the story of Jesus as the story of one who teaches us to make room for the outsiders this part of the parable is really not a stretch. It makes sense. It fits.
But then there is this part about the king wiping out those who reject him, now that is just hard to take, especially when one of them is so violently cast out for not having the correct appearance. This story casts the king, its casts God, as a demanding, unreasonable, violent, and vengeful ruler. These actions, well they’re confusing and disconcerting. Being expelled for not wearing the right clothes! That doesn’t quite jive with the life of this Jesus, the one telling the story, who we know hung out with the sick, the outsider, the poor, and the downtrodden; this one who we are told wants us and accepts us just as we are.
But his audience, well they would get it. They would understand from this story that the grace of God is serious business and it demands an appropriate response. Theirs was a way of life rooted in a system of honor and shame. A king is a political figure who must use his power to defend and uphold his position, his realm. If his son is getting married it is a big deal. It says something about the continuation of the King’s realm, and those he invites are expected to respond in ways that show their honor and allegiance to the king and his heir. If you were invited to such an important occasion by such a powerful person, you would simply go out of your way to find the appropriate clothes. It would be expected that if you did not have clothes that were appropriate you would borrow from neighbors, from anyone in town – they would understand the need – it was the done thing. These clothes didn’t necessarily have to be lavish, just the whitest and the cleanest that you could get your hands on. You had to make an effort – to not do so was a matter of dishonor and that was serious business.
And in this story, the means of retaliation is a reflection of just how serious a dishonor this is -– his king’s invitation has at best not been taken seriously; at worst it has been deliberately rejected. This guest dressed in their everyday clothes has not responded appropriately – just as those others who were first invited ignored, dismissed and mistreated the emissaries of the king.
The grace of God is a serious business. This story makes it crystal clear that yes all are invited to the feast. And it makes it clear that this invitation makes a serious claim on our lives. So we have to give some thought to the question, “What is our appropriate response?” In this day and age what is the appropriate response to the invitation of our God to the feast that is spread before us – well here is something of which I am absolutely sure. It’s not about the clothes.
I re-watched the film The Mission last week. Julie Kae told me a few weeks ago that Robert was coming to play a piece called Gabriel’s Oboe for our offering this week. Gabriel’s Oboe is from the film The Mission. It is named after a Jesuit father who in this movie travels to a mission in South America during the regions colonization by Spain, Portugal and a number of other European powers. As he makes his journey, which is dangerous and difficult, he sits for a minute and he unwraps an oboe, one of the few possessions he has brought with him, and he begins to play. He plays the tune Robert will offer today. It is just beautiful and the tribe’s people who have been tracking Gabriel, arrows poised, are captured by the music and they approach him to listen. They lower their arrows and they are drawn to the person sitting in the river without weapons, without defense, full of grace, playing this beautiful tune on this strange instrument.
This film goes on to depict the horror of colonization. It shows the way the church and the colonial governments of the time treated the people as no more than objects. It shows how they ultimately brought about the destruction of the indigenous people as they, those with more power and might, bargained with each other over land that wasn’t theirs to take. Father Gabriel is implicated in this injustice, he is part of it. But throughout the movie, in the midst of all of this injustice there are moments of stunning beauty, moments of connection, kindness and breathtaking forgiveness. We see Gabriel and others respond to the beauty of the people, the beauty of the place. We see the people respond to the beauty that exists in the Jesuits. Every time the viewer gets a glimpse of beauty and connection, kindness and care, even within the ugliness of colonization, the soundtrack moves to Gabriel’s oboe. It highlights a beauty that cannot be taken away even in a system that will ultimately kill people and it lifts our vision to something better, something stunning, something worthwhile.
Father Gabriel loves the people he understands himself called to be with. And there are hints that he is learning from them, being shaped to understand who they are and what they need. He moves eventually to stay with them, die with them, as the church, his church, sanctions the violent acquisition by the colonial powers of the land upon which the mission is built.
And Gabriel’s love for the people comes from what he knows of the love of God. His gentleness, his care and ultimately his courage is his best response to God’s invitation to the feast. Even as he contributes to a violent and abusive system, in the moments that we hear Gabriel’s oboe play we see Father Gabriel make an appropriate response to the love of God, to the claim of God on his life. He is gentle and loving. He is willing to learn and be shaped by those he is with. He is willing to remain with them, comfort them, die with them.
We have been invited to a feast. Our invitation is not based upon anything that we have done or not done. The God of heaven wants us at the table. Jesus told us before he gave his life away that we are to take bread and share it and remember who he is, and who we are. We remember at this table when we have communion, and even when we don’t there is a plate and cup there to remind us, that all are invited to a table that doesn’t belong to anyone of us. It God’s table and it is open to all and it celebrates the one who lived and died that we might know how deeply we are loved. And if we are loved so deeply by a God that would not leave us, then so is the rest of the world. And with all this in mind, all this in heart, we are asked to make a serious response.
But how? Just like Father Gabriel there are systems that we take part in, that we uphold, that we benefit from, which contribute to if not rely upon the hardship of others. Cheap goods that make our lives easier are only available because of the terrible conditions of workers overseas; nicer neighborhoods close to our work place make our life more pleasant, more convenient, but they make no room for those on lower income. We make cuts in essential services that many of us with cars and decent copays do not need, things like busses and food stamps and mental health care for those that can’t afford it so that our own income tax bill won’t get too high. We let those with deep pockets control the political process and manipulate it to protect their own power and wealth while those without power are trampled underfoot.
What on earth can possibly be the appropriate response to God’s love amongst systems that seem insurmountable, that we contribute to – are we not beaten before we even start. Well, if we are to be guided by Gabriel’s oboe then no we are not. We are asked to engage and keep engaging in individual acts of love, small moments of beauty and kindness, an opening of ourselves to the lives, the hopes of others, especially those who are different, those who face struggle and find themselves on the underside of our systems. In responding to God’s love in this way, in following the music of love and kindness, in looking for and in contributing to beauty amongst the ugliness of our unjust systems we will gradually, sometimes suddenly, be changed and we will start to use the power we do have to speak out of our own experience of people we have come to love. And eventually, even if it’s just in an individual life, love and care will spread, and will have its way, and the world will be made new - green pastures will be found.
But what will happen, we might ask, if we don’t make the appropriate response. Is this king of ours a vengeful and violent ruler? If the life of Jesus is any reflection of the God who loves us, and I believe it is, then no we will not be cast out – we may end up in some kind of hell – a place of bitterness, and violence and pain, but the king who loves us will not stand back removed and cold, will not bar the door. The invitation to join the feast and to try to make a serious response will never be taken, there is always a way back to the table, there is always another chance to respond with kindness and love and that is good, that is great news. Thanks be to God.
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