Trinity 18 – Wiping away the tears

Trinity 18

15 October 2017

Isaiah 25: 1-9, Matt 22:1-14

Heavenly Father, take the words of my mouth and make them yours, take the ears of this congregation and help them to hear your call on their lives, for the sake always of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

On Tuesday of last week I had the privilege of taking Canon Agrippa to London for the day.  In case you don’t know Canon Agrippa is the head of St Philips Theological College in our link diocese of Mpwapwa in Tanzania and he will be joining us here at St Mary’s next week.

We started our trip to London by visiting St Paul’s Cathedral and we joined them in time for the communion service.  Although the cathedral was full of tourists the communion service took place in the middle of the Cathedral, right underneath the dome.  Although this made things rather noisy I suspect it was also a very good witness to all those tourists that, at heart, this was still a working church and that communion continues to take place in the heart of the hustle and bustle and is not packed off to the side chapel.  And, I have to say, despite all the noise, I did find that service to be a particularly holy moment.

But the reason I am telling you about that service is this:  During communion we were sitting ‘in the round’, as I said underneath the dome, and sitting opposite Agrippa and I was a young woman, probably in her 20s.   I don’t know what had gone wrong for her but, at the start of the service, she was sitting there crying.  I spent much of the service that God would wipe away her tears and thanked God that she had come to his table to be fed.  Having heard the readings for today it may now be clearer why this came to mind.

Today’s gospel story is not just about a banquet, but it is a wedding banquet – and not just any old wedding banquet but a royal wedding banquet.

Cast your mind back a few years to the wedding of Prince William and Kate.  To receive an invitation to that wedding was a mark of distinction and I cannot imagine that many people refused an invitation to that wedding.

But the same does not appear to be true of the royal wedding banquet in our gospel, which Jesus is offering as a parable of the kingdom of God.

In this parable the king was giving the banquet for his son and he invited lots of guests, no doubt the great and the good of society, but it seems that none of the great and the good responded to their invitations.  So the king sent out his servants to gently remind them that they had been invited to this marvellous occasion but, despite this first, gentle, reminder, they still would not come.

Although they had ignored both the original invitation and the first reminder, which let’s face it is the height of rudeness, the king sent his servants back out to the great and the good, and this time he sent them with the menu, to try and tempt them in:

Tell those who have been invited:  Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

I don’t know about you, but I would definitely have gone at that point, although it does sound a bit like the Atkins diet, but never mind.

But those invited would not come even when told the menu. What is worse they did not make even attempt to make polite excuses – rather they made light of it – they treated the invitations like a joke and some went off to their farms and others went about their business.  And, get this, others seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them and killed them.  Sometimes you hear people say that they are bringing bad news but “please don’t kill the messenger” – Well, these slaves were bringing good news – you are invited to a brilliant party with loads of good food and, still, those bearers of good news were killed.

Until now the king has been patient and gracious, and he cannot be faulted for trying again and again to get the great and the good to come to this banquet – but everything has been thrown back in the king’s face, and he is enraged and he destroys those who killed his servants and even burned down their city.

Many commentators see this as Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem itself in 70 AD and, by extension, the fall of Jerusalem as being God’s judgement on Israel’s rejection of his messengers, the prophets and, of course, Jesus himself, who was killed for bringing good news.

But this is not the end of the parable.  The king then sent out more messengers into the streets with instructions to invite everyone they find to the wedding banquet, and the messengers do exactly that, gathering both the good and the bad until, we are told, that the wedding hall was ‘filled with guests’.

So far, this sounds like a wonderful parable of God opening up the kingdom to everyone and, from one point of view, it would be jolly handy if the reading just stopped there and we could all feel good, but without being unduly challenged in any way.  But the parable does not stop there and we are challenged to think a little harder.

The king comes into the wedding banquet to see the guests and they have all put on their wedding garment; all except one man. Immediately on entering the banquet the king’s eye fell upon him. Calling him ‘friend‘ he asked him why he was there. It is the same question Jesus asks Judas when they come to arrest him on the night of the agony: ‘Friend, why are you here?’

But the man without the wedding garment was speechless and the king ordered that he be bound and thrown out into the darkness.

On first reading this sounds harsh and unjust, but it is useful to know that it was the custom at this time for the host of a wedding feast to provide all their guests with a simple white wedding garment and all the guests had to do was to slip it over their heads in order to graciously accept their hosts hospitality and play their role in the banquet.  The fact that this man was not wearing the garment suggests that he was actually treating the king’s invitation to the banquet with about the same level of seriousness as those who had originally mocked the invitations – he may have refused the garment at the door or perhaps even thrown it to the ground rather than put it on – he was at the banquet in body, but he was certainly not there in spirit, in fact he was sitting there as a continuing insult to the king by refusing to join in and the king responded by ejecting him.

In the Book of Revelation being clothed with the white robe is a symbol of being washed clean by the sacrifice of Jesus, and therefore of fully and completely accepting God’s invitation to the banquet to end all banquets.  We are all invited to that banquet and God’s greatest desire is for each and everyone one of us to accept that invitation.  And yet, it is still always up to us to accept – and accepting doesn’t just mean not killing the messenger and it also doesn’t just mean turning up in body but not in spirit.  Accepting God’s invitation to the banquet means putting on the wedding garment, the white robe, and taking our place at the table and honouring the king and his son.

In the reading from Isaiah 25 we are also given the image of God hosting a fine banquet for all peoples, with the best wine and the best meat, and in verse 8 we are told that: “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces” and this may also remind us of the promise in Revelation 21 of another wedding and another wiping away of tears:

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them…He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast of reconciliation; Sharing in this banquet is about becoming part of the grand work of reconciliation that the heavenly bridegroom inaugurates on the cross and which will be consummated in the heavenly banquet of which our Eucharist is a sign and anticipation.

At the end of the service at St Paul’s I am pleased to say that the young woman had stopped crying and I hope and I pray that by joining in the feast around the Lord’s table that he had wiped away her tears and brought her healing.  If today you are crying, whether on the outside or the inside, know that God wants you to join him around the banquet table and if we accept the invitation and put on the wedding garment that he will give us the finest things, will be with us always and will wipe away every tear.