- Parish House
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost –Matthew 22:1-14
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Northern Italy and attend the Solone del Gusto organized by Slow Food International. I was part of a delegation of people connected to the local food movement from around the world and all I had to pay for was my ticket to Torino. For a week, I enjoyed the best food Europe had to offer–Italian dinner spreads of five courses, wines from around the region, and a convention center filled with cheesemakers, charcuterie stands, chocolatiers, and oil pressers from around the world. Day after day, I’d walk along the aisles, tasting and talking. I visited with a fourth generation vinegar maker while sampling a hundred and fifty year old balsamic vinegar that his great great grandfather had started. I had a long chat with a British cheddar maker about the right pastures for good cheese. I sampled Spanish hams from pigs that had been finished on acorns and whose fat carried that nutty flavor. It was the best food I’ve ever eaten, a feast that went on for days, and it was all free.
When I read the scriptures, with their many feasts, I often think of those rows of free food, each stall sampling something that would burst with flavor, lingering in the mouth until the pallet was cleared with bubbly water and more food was to be had. In Isaiah 55 the prophet plays the role of a market merchant, calling out to potential buyers, yelling:
All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts (Isaiah 55:1-2 CEB).
The Isaiahs, and there were probably more than one, must have been gourmands because earlier in the book, we also read about God setting out a feast for all:
On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined (Isaiah 25:6 CEB).
The image we get is that God has prepared a feast for us, one that will mark the final work of our redemption. It will be free, ready for all of us. It is upon these images from Isaiah that Jesus bases his parable of the King’s Wedding Feast we read this morning.
The great Episcopal priest and writer, Robert Farrar Capon once said that only a fool wouldn’t go to a free feast. And yet, that is exactly the response of those invited to the wedding feast of the king. The king sends out his servants to tell the guests that the plates are hot, good food is waiting for them, but they are too busy to come and enjoy the abundant pleasures the king has prepared for them. They are wrapped up in the business of their lives, keeping the farm running or making enough money for the long vacation. Some are even so annoyed by the interruption that they respond with murderous violence, a brutal RSVP.
I wish that I could say that I am no fool, that I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would reject an invitation to a free feast, but the reality is that I do it all of the time. I often choose what I know won’t fill me up or deeply satisfy me over the things I know will give me the most pleasure in the long run. There are occasions in which I’ve forgone the effort to ready myself for a filling, delicious meal made from local ingredients and bursting with flavor, to instead down the quick satisfactions of fast food. There are many times when I have chosen to pay for bad food rather than to accept the hospitality of one who offers me good food for free.
I imagine many of you have had the same experience. We share it because this is part of the nature of our fallen selves. Whatever you may think of him, I believe John Calvin was right when he said that“[human] nature…is a perpetual factory of idols.” Whether it is the people of Israel feasting around the golden calf, paid for through all of their wealth or the obsessive work of our day at the neglect of family and health in order to own the bigger house, the eye catching car, idols are all around us.
What is an idol? It is whatever we put in the place of God, whatever thing or power or person we allow to become the center of our attention or assurance of our salvation. It is the means by which we reject the free gift of God’s grace, the invitation to the feast, rather than welcome the abundant life God is giving us.
In Jesus’ parable it is the busyness of a farm or business that keeps the invited guests from coming to the feast. Somehow they had come to believe that what they could provide through their own labor was better than what the king wanted to freely give them. They trusted in the powers of Economic life more than they trusted in God. This is, indeed, an age old idol.
How many times have we turned a blind eye to the injustice so that we can enjoy more clothes for less money, how many times have we ignored ecological ruin because the companies causing it are delivering good returns for our 401(k)s, how many times have we chosen to work at the expense of our health and family so that we can enjoy a passing satisfaction rather than resting in the abundance of God’s daily bread.
The result of idolatry is always death because in its background is always a worship of Death. Death is that force that undoes the creation which God called very good and when we worship anything other than God we are blocked from the fullness of life God offers. Death always comes at a cost–to ourselves, our communities, our bodies. God’s grace, however, is always free–it requires only that we repent, turn around and enjoy the abundant feast rather than keep trying to pay for the disastisfying meals our best efforts can provide. Yet, we know from others and ourselves, the invitation to the feast often goes unanswered and rejected.
But as in Jesus’s parable, when God’s offer is rejected God just keeps expanding the invitation list. More are invited in, because God is offering a gift of life God has no intention of letting go to waste. It is an invitation, though, for which we must be ready. And this is the message of the final twist of our Gospel reading.
The white wedding robes, many commentators believe, would have been handed out by the host. They represent baptism which is a public act of death to the old idolatrous self and an embrace of the resurrection life of Christ. But what of the man without the robe? I believe we can only take this addition to mean that he had refused the repentance necessary to come to the table. Everyone loves a free meal, but all good feasts, however free, require some table manners. And over this whole series of parables that we’ve been reading these past few weeks, the common requirement, the only rule of the table is simple: repent. Repent whether you are a religious leader, a political authority, or simply one of the many people welcomed off the street–we all have to admit the idolatries of our hearts and let go of them so that we can come to the table and enjoy the feast God is freely, relentlesly, offering us.
So let us turn around, leave our credit cards and wallets at home, all of the means by which we seek to pay for the inferior gifts we can acquire through our own means. There is a free feast that awaits us–the best wines, cheeses aged from sweet milk, savory foods that linger and burst with flavor. All we need to do to sit at the table is to don the white robe of our repentence by examining our lives and offering to God all of those things that hinder our aliveness. The plates are hot: come and eat!