Celebrating the Banquet

Isaiah 25: 6-9   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Matthew 22: 1-10              October 22, 2017

“… everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

Prayer:  O God, you are our God!  Your gifts are abundant!  Thank you.  Amen.

Let me ask you—How do you understand God?  What do you believe about God?  Do you talk about God with your friends, hearing out their thoughts? Sharing Yours? Does Jesus’ parable for today deepen your thinking about God and what God is like?

Stories have power, and Jesus’ parable is no exception.  It depicts God as a tyrannical king who gets all bent out of shape when invited guests do the unexpected and turn down a wedding invitation given to them (kind of like when some folks get all bent out of shape because football players do the unexpected and kneel for the national anthem?).  The king gets so bent out of shape that troops are sent in to kill the offending guests and burn down their cities, and NFL owners are told to fire the offending players.  Taken from that standpoint alone, Jesus’ story has power to push us away from God, if God is indeed like that.  Or to push us away from support for the king, if indeed the king is indeed like that.

It’s hard to reconcile because we don’t believe God is like that, do we?  We want to believe in God who is all about love, right?  We want to believe God is about preparing this banquet for us, this feast of goodness and joy.  We want to believe in a God who doesn’t get angry and violent.  So, this story is difficult to reconcile.  What on earth is Jesus saying?

On the one hand, could he be describing God as kind of like Aslan, the great lion from The Chronicles of Narnia?  Aslan is described by C. S. Lewis as a wise, compassionate, magical authority who guides the human children.  But, it is noted many times in the book, “that Aslan is not a tame lion since, despite his gentle and loving nature, he is powerful and can be dangerous” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org, retrieved October 13, 2017).  God in Jesus’ parable, despite loving his son enough to throw a wedding banquet for him, is not a tame God, but one who can be dangerous and vengeful.  Is God really like this?

On the other hand, could Jesus be describing not the way God actually is, but the way people frequently want God to be?  I wonder if Jesus offers this parable to show his listeners, “them” as the text says (who were the Scribes and Pharisees) just how ludicrous their depiction of God really was.  Maybe he’s holding up the mirror to them… to see how they, the leaders of the synagogue and supposed shepherds of the people, from their positions of privilege and power, view God and want God to be—ruthless with deviants.  Judgmental with anyone whose reasons for not attending the banquet don’t add up.  Inflexible with anyone who makes excuses.  Maybe Jesus is calling out the Scribes and the Pharisees for their ungodly, legalistic behavior as they lord it over the average citizen?

Taken that way, does the parable make us look at our view of God?  Maybe we want a God who is ruthless and cracks the whip?  Maybe we would like a God who doesn’t listen to reason?  Because if God is like that, then doesn’tthat gives us permission to be that way ourselves?  If God is like that, then maybe our leaders are justified by not hearing people out, and wanting to shut down their freedom of expression and speech.  Maybe we can rationalize one group having privilege and power over another group.  Maybe bullyingbecomes an OK way to wield power.  Maybe flexing military muscle is the only way to deal with nations that go rogue—after all, God does it in Jesus parable, right?

But, God is not like that!  And those ways are as shallow as the day is long.  That’s why I paused so long when I got to the ending of the text.  That’s why I think it’s possible Jesus shifts the meaning and the emphasis in the end.  The enraged king of Jesus’ parable is not like the God we know and love.  I think the ending reveals that Jesus showing that the king really is like God who makes everything ready and invites everyone to the banquet.  The God Jesus loves and our God wants his servants to go out and get everyone they can find, the good and the bad to fill the wedding hall.  If the king really wants the good and the bad folks, why kill off the bad-behaving guests?  Jesus describes God inviting everyone to come and celebrate the banquet.  God prepares it for all people.

Jesus describes the God Isaiah describes.  God who promises a

feast of epic proportions.  God who promises a banquet of food and drink.  God who promises to remove the disgrace of people.  God who promises to wipe away tears from all faces.  God who is a refuge for the needy, a shelter from the rainstorm, a shade from the heat.  God who removes the shroud of death and swallows up death forever. for all!

For us, we know these metaphors of the feast and the banquet point to the gifts that God gives everyone.  It’s a feast that we share in of God’s presence, love, and grace.  With God in our lives, we feel God’s comfort when we get distressed by seeing things we don’t agree with. We receive spiritual food for our journeys when culture feeds us with food that doesn’t feed us.  We receive life itself.  And through Jesus Christ, we receive from God the full table of forgiveness that restores our stature in God’s presence by God’ grace and mercy.  So before we start making judgments about those whom we think deserves to be on the guest list, who we think should be welcome at the table, let’s remember that it’s only by God’s grace and mercy that we ourselves are included among those good and bad guests at the table who celebrate the banquet God prepares for us.

The only way to celebrate the banquet is to choose to come to it.  God never forces us to do that.  Everyone gets the invitation.  Everyone must choose the life God offers, or not.  But, like Joshua said to the people, choose life!

A chapter in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, is entitled: “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.”  Her son Sam, then seven years old, is the only child among his group of friends who goes to church.  Sometimes he doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t let him get away with that.  Here’s why: “I make him go because I can.  I outweigh him by nearly 75 pounds!  But that is only part of it.  The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.  Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.  They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights.  They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Anchor, 1999), p. 100. https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040848, retrieved October 13, 2017).

To choose to be part of something beautiful with God is celebrating God’s banquet.  To choose God’s involvement with us and our involvement with God, helping to determine what happens next, working alongside the Spirit to shape the world is celebrating the banquet God has prepared.

So, we know what God is like.  The banquet is prepared.  It is for all of us.  The good news is that you can come to the banquet knowing that it’s not your reflection or your righteousness that gets you a seat at the table, but your lack of it.  It’s not your fullness, but your emptiness.  It’s not that you earn your seat at the table, but you have a seat precisely because you can’t earn it.  The good news is also, that if you are good and righteous and you’re full of God, doing fine, you get a seat, too.

Mostly, celebrating the banquet means living in a world where who we are and how we love matters far more than how much power we wield or how many times we turn down the invitation to the banquet, or even feel like we didn’t receive an invitation.  God still invites us to celebrate the banquet.  You and all your friends.  Amen.