Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A, Proper 23)
St. Luke's International Hospital Chapel
October 9, 2011– 10:30 a.m. Holy Eucharist
I still have a clear memory from when I was a toddler. One night, like usual, my parents put me to sleep in their bedroom, in my baby bed, the kind with fence around it like a jail cell.
I think I must have slept and then woken up, but suddenly I became aware of something that made the blood run cold in my veins. Across the dark room, sitting on my Mom's big chair, was a huge, black gorilla. He must've weighed 300 kg. He was absolutely still, just staring at me.
I thought, "I have to be quiet! If I make a noise, he's gonna get up and come over here…"
I sat in the darkness for what seemed like hours, staring at the gorilla, ready to scream if he moved. I was terrified. Finally, I decided I had to make a break for it…
It took me a while to screw up my courage. Then, I climbed over the fence, jumped to the floor, and ran. I ran like the wind down the hall, turned the corner, dashed into the living room--where I found myself in a brightly lit room full of people, all talking and laughing. A fire was going in the hearth. There was popcorn out. People were drinking wine and egg nog.
It was December 31. My parents were having a New Year's Eve party.
I reported the gorilla to Mom and Dad. They were…skeptical. But I begged them, so we all went back to the bedroom and turned on light. Wouldn't you know it, that clever gorilla had put some shopping bags on the chair and covered it with my father's raincoat to make it LOOK sort of gorilla-like. So, he could make a clean getaway without rousing suspicion.
(NOTE: The congregation was absolutely silent at this point. No smile or chuckle anywhere. Yikes!)
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So, before, I was in darkness, alone, afraid, paralyzed by fear. I thought I might get hurt or die. I felt trapped, powerless, small.
Then suddenly, I was in the middle of a party. People were happy. I was set free from fear. I even got to eat popcorn and drink root beer!
I suspect that the people who responded to Jesus' call to enter into the Kingdom of God had a similar experience--only a much, much bigger, better experience.
Let us recall that the Kingdom of God is not a place found on a map and it's not somewhere you go after you die. The Kingdom of God is friendship with God, and fellowship with God's friends, here and now. To be in the Kingdom is to be free from the weight of guilt, reconciled to God, and living a common life centered around mutual love and service.
Imagine you're living in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Now imagine you're a hated tax-collector, or a prostitute, or a so-called bad apple, or a loser, or a foreigner.
There are some Jews who seem to have it all together. They obey every last commandment in the Torah, and even all the rules and regulations set up to make sure they never even come close to breaking a commandment. They pray seven times a day, tithe 10% of EVERYTHING, never even so much as carry a fig on the Sabbath, never contaminate themselves with profane things or interact with sinners. They're above all the grime and sin of the world.
But not you. You're right in the thick of it. Maybe it was the family you were born into, or maybe it was bad decisions you made, or maybe somebody wronged you, or maybe you just messed up--but you're a sinner. You know it. Everybody around you knows it.
And one thing seems certain. The Pharisees are in good with God, but sinners can't approach Him. Just as a flaming sword barred Adam and Eve from going back to the garden (Gen 3:24), your sinfulness stands between you and God, blocking your way, keeping you from grace.
As a sinner, you may not even WANT to approach God. After they sinned, Adam and Eve hid from God. Guilt is like a 300 kg gorilla that keeps us cowering in a corner. We know that, as a sinner, to encounter God is to encounter wrath, to encounter judgment.
But then Jesus of Nazareth comes along and says: "Come! Repent and enter the Kingdom. Come and be friends with the Father. His love is a lot bigger than your sinfulness. Repent, receive forgiveness, join the Kingdom party."
Well, would you accept Jesus' invitation?
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In Jesus' day, the ones who refuse the invitation are the ones who seem to have it all together. They think they have a right to enter the Kingdom of God, so they don't need an invitation. I don't need an invitation to sit at my own dining table.
So God's invitation falls on deaf ears. In the parable Jesus tells, the king (=God) even condescends to plead with the invited guests. "Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet" (Matt 22:4).
"But they paid no attention and went off" (Matt 22:5).
But you don't earn your way into the Kingdom. It's strictly by invitation only, and the fastest way to get yourself uninvited is to act like you've got a right to be there. The Pharisees had no time for Jesus--or for John the Baptist either, for that matter--saying "Repent!" They were like: "Repent? Of what?"
"The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come," says the Lord.
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So, entering into the Kingdom is by invitation only. But just look at who God invites:
"'Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests" (Matt 22:9-10).
The bad as well as the good. Normal people, as well as prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, losers, foreigners, and bad apples. "Anyone." Even people like you and me!
There is no minimum requirement for entering the festival of the Kingdom. All you've got to do is accept the invitation.
What that means is: Churches are always going to be full of sinners. A few really good people, a few really awful sorts, and a lot of folks somewhere in between. And if you don't like some of the people sitting here this morning...well, the king is the one who gets to do the inviting.
So, there's no requirement to be saved. And that's what the Kingdom invitation is, isn't it? To come in from the darkness and hopelessness of a life of serving yourself, and to enter friendship with God, and fellowship with God's friends, and a life of serving others in love.
Aside from saying, "Well, okay" to the invitation, there are no other requirements to be saved.
Well, actually, there are requirements, pretty steep ones--and Christ satisfied them all on the cross on our behalf. His blood quenched the fiery sword that barred sinners from grace. His light has conquered the darkness. He has taken away the 300 kg gorilla of guilt.
Thanks to Christ, our encounter with God is no longer an encounter with wrath and judgment, but an encounter with forgiveness and mercy.
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So the requirement for salvation has been fulfilled. Nothing remains for us to do other than accepting the invitation.
There are, however, manners befitting those who've been saved. I want you to stay with me through this last turn: There's absolutely nothing we can do, no work that can earn salvation, earn a place at the banquet table. But there are manners that are expected of the guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless" (Matt 22:11-12).
What exactly are these wedding clothes? I think St. Paul can help us out here:
Kill off everything connected with the life that leads to death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy…It's because of this kind of thing that God is about to explode in anger. It wasn't long ago that you were doing all that stuff and not knowing any better. But you know better now, so make sure it's all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk. Don't lie to one another. You're done with that old life. It's like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you've stripped off and put in the fire. Now you're dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete….Christ has invited us to the wedding baquet. He has given us new clothes to wear, given us the strength to live as new people. Why would we show up wearing our old, grubby street clothes? Why would we keep on living in all the same ways as before?
So [since you have been invited by God,] dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Colossians 3:5-14)
Lord, help us to appreciate the feast that you have prepared for us. Help us to understand the joys of life with you.