The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 23
19th Sunday After Pentecost
Bread for the World Sunday
Today we pray with parishes all over the U.S. for the alleviation of hunger as we observe Bread for the World Sunday.
From Bread for the World: Today and in the months to come, we pray for all those who suffer from hunger, need, or injustice. We pray also for our elected leaders that they might govern with wisdom and make ending hunger—in our own country and around the world—a national priority. And we pray that we will use our influence to urge our nation’s leaders to strengthen U.S. leadership in achieving the international goal of ending hunger by 2030.
As this ties into today’s gospel, we hear this morning of the banquet that has been opened to all those on the streets—an invitation to join God’s kingdom and experience God’s abundance first hand. But it’s also a bit of a difficult parable to unpack.
For the past eight weeks we have been hearing a lot about the kingdom of heaven, and as we approach the end of Matthew’s kingdom parables, the metaphors take on a comprehensive significance.
The significant symbols began with Jesus affirming the kind of deep and convicted faith that comes from relationship and understanding through perception and transformation—the kind of intentional and relational faith that invites Peter, and each of us with him, to live as instruments of bringing God’s kingdom to life in the world around us.
It is in this context of being the living keys to the kingdom of heaven through our binding or loosing that the first parable about the kingdom was related to forgiveness four weeks ago. The parable of the king forgiving his slave a debt of 10,000 talents represented the debt of a hundred lifetimes of wages being forgiven, compared to the wicked slave refusing to forgive a debt of a mere hundred DAYS’ wages. For the healing and wholeness of our own hearts, we were called to forgive as though forgiving a hundred lifetimes worth of debt, a forgiveness that neither keeps count, nor even conditions forgiveness on change or repentance.
The context of the next parable of the kingdom, from three weeks ago, was Christ’s disciples asking about what their reward would be for leaving everything behind to follow him. Jesus’ response, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, taught us, similarly as instruments of God’s kingdom, that the rewards of the kingdom are to be found precisely in participating in it, no longer as hired hands, but as heirs. We are called as the prophets were called, as Christ was called, as Christ’s disciples were called, into the work of a lifetime—to bring God’s abundance alive in the world around us.
In our gospel from two weeks ago, Jesus addressed the chief priests and elders, asking them whom of two sons did their father’s will—the first who said he would not go into the vineyard and later changed his mind and went, or the second who said he would go and then did not. In their response that the first did his father’s will, Christ indicted them for claiming God’s authority as leaders without participating as instruments of God’s kingdom.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus addressed the parable of the Landowner and the wicked tenants to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, who condemned themselves for abusing their role in tending God’s vineyard, and whom Jesus directly challenged, saying that they would be removed in favor of those would produce the fruits of the kingdom.
Finally, today we reach the third and perhaps most cryptic kingdom parable offered against the religious authorities… The kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent servants twice calling those invited to the feast, but they would not come, and, worse, they accosted and murdered the servants. Sending servants out again, the king tells them that those invited had not been worthy, so he sends them into the streets to bring in everyone they can find. They brought everyone, without judgment, and the hall was filled. Coming amongst the guests, the king finds an attendee who is not adorned in the customary robe that would have been given to each invited guest. Questioning him, he gave no answer and was bound and thrown into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Where we arrive today, we have been established as instruments of God’s kingdom. Through our lives and actions in the world, we are the keys to bringing God’s kingdom into being. Through our forgiveness or lack there of, we loose or bind in the kingdom of heaven what we bind or loose in our own hearts, so we are called on to forgive recklessly, absurdly, doubly perfectly, and we are to love one another enough to compassionately confront and assist one another in finding our way back onto the path toward God when we lose our way. In all of this, we are equal to all other instruments of God’s kingdom—the prophets, the disciples, the common followers whose lives were changed forever by their faith and encounter with the divine in Christ. Essentially we are in relationship with all of God’s faithful people, working together to act as God’s instruments of unconditional forgiveness, love, faith, compassion, healing, and peace. By our participating in bringing the inexhaustible abundance of God’s kingdom to all those around us, we cultivate the fruits of the kingdom.
Unlike the religious authorities who would ultimately succeed in killing the landowner’s son, we are to work toward producing and sharing the fruits of the kingdom—living as Christ’s hands and heart in the world, reaching out to others to lift up the oppressed and downtrodden, draw in the outcast, welcome the stranger, soothe the suffering, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.
Yet in all of this, we are to remember ultimately who it is that has invited us to the feast. If we are, indeed, to accept God’s invitation through Christ to be instruments of God’s kingdom, if we are to come to the feast, joining in equal share with such prophets as Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and even Christ himself, and with the whole history of Christ’s laborers in the vineyard from the apostles to Martin Luther King, and from Mother Theresa to our own lives of working to manifest the fruits of the kingdom, we must do it with integrity, authenticity, and humility—truly seeking toward the good of others for no greater reward than relationships of love, and no greater hope than that God’s own passionate call to each and every beloved child of God in this world, to be in relationship with God, might be shown through our example of what a life lived in faith can be.
So if the king, again, is God, the son is Christ, and the wedding feast is the invitation to become a part of the community of God’s instruments in bringing the kingdom to life around us, we can again place the religious leaders to whom the parable is addressed in the unfortunate position of the unworthy who refused the invitation, and each of us becomes the invited guest, participating as instruments in producing the fruits of God’s kingdom. The loose end, of course, is that unlucky guest without the wedding robe. Who is he?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, he is me. He is me when I walk down Pacific and ignore the pleas of the hungry and destitute without even stopping to acknowledge their humanity with eye contact and a kind word. He is me when I fail at being a good parent. He is me when I am careless with my words and actions and end up hurting someone by accident—or, worse, on purpose. He is me when I get caught-up in myself—when my ego and pride get in the way of remembering who invited me to the feast. He is me when I am exhausted, broken, tired, wounded, fearful, and stressed, and instead of seeking or accepting help, I draw in on myself, put up walls, and shut down communications with those relationships that sustain and uplift me. He is me when I am my worst self. I can look back at many times in my own life when I have been that unfortunate guest. (The disciples had been too, so I don’t feel too alone in my humanness). In fact, each of us is sometimes that guest.
However, I do not believe that it is the guest’s lack of a wedding-robe that gets him kicked out of the feast, but his silence when approached by the king.
He has taken himself out of relationship. For whatever reason, he has stopped being an instrument in the kingdom of heaven, symbolized by his lack of proper raiment. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe he was cross with his seven-year-old for waking him up in the middle of the night before an important event. Whatever it is, at that moment it has taken him out of relationship with God and the others around him. Yet when approached, he maintains the brokenness in alienating silence, denying even the possibility of relationship with the King. In essence, the parable concretizes this guest’s experience—he confirms that he does not belong at the feast, and places himself in the outer darkness. He may pine for reconciliation, but persisting in his brokenness, he finds himself unable to simply turn around and see that the door may yet remain open for him to return when he sheds his self-inflicted alienation and seeks again to don the wedding garment and come in.
So it is with each of us—called with the many into the incredible abundance of God’s kingdom, called as we are—indeed, precisely because of who we are—to share with Christ in restoring creation’s relationship with God and one another, one outstretched hand at a time.
I remember one night when I was a senior in high school I had plans with David, a friend I’d known since he was too young to even be in cub scouts. We had been best friends for over ten years, but earlier that evening I had gone over to another friend’s house, and when the time came to leave to keep my plans with David, I decided I didn’t want to go. I called him, but instead of being honest with him, I told him that I was tired and didn’t feel up to hanging out, and I asked if we could change our plans to another night. He said, “dude, I know you’re hanging out with Dave and Jamie tonight. Have a good time, I’ll catch up with you later.” Too ashamed of myself to apologize to him, I carried that moment with me for years, and allowed it to open a rift between us. Despite this fact, I received an invitation to his wedding, and, appropriate to today’s gospel, it was at his wedding feast that I finally approached him and told him that I had never forgotten that moment, that I felt I had betrayed our friendship, and that I was sorry. He simply said, “dude, I forgave you for that years ago—what took you so long?”
That door stood open for over ten years as I stood outside it in darkness, with my back turned, pining in my self-alienation and guilt, and gnashing my teeth.
The kingdom of heaven is like life, when lived as our best selves, loving without walls, without condition, and without compromise. We are called to love the kingdom of heaven into being, and to forgive as God forgives—unconditionally and without hesitation. But as the un-robed guest reminds us today, this forgiveness and love must extend to ourselves as well, particularly when we are our worst selves. God seeks passionately for our wholeness, but until we turn around to find the open door, we keep ourselves alienated in our own darknesses, behind the walls we build around ourselves out of fear of our own vulnerability. If indeed many are called, the only thing standing between the call and the choosing is that state of our own hearts.
Today, on Bread of the World Sunday, we are called again to remember our role as instruments of God’s abundance. As we do each week on Monday nights when we feed Santa Cruz’s homeless community and on Wednesdays when we welcome the hungry into our Second Harvest food pantry, we are encouraged this day to seek opportunities in which we can bring God’s kingdom to life in the world around us—to reach out and make a difference in the lives of those struggling for the basic human needs to survive. This day we are encouraged to write letters to our democratic representatives, we are encouraged to discuss issues of both local and global hunger, which we’ll be doing today at our adult forum, we’re encouraged to take up an outreach offering, which we do today for the Bred for the World organization, and we’re encouraged to reflect on, pray for, and seek together toward a world without hunger by 2030—which is one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, and which we have been working toward in the Episcopal Church since it was one of the Eight Millennium Development Goals set up by the UN in 2000. As it relates to our Gospel, today we are called on to examine our own hands and heart—to re-don the wedding garment if we’ve taken it off, and to join in the feast prepared for the whole world.
May we each learn to turn around and seek again the open door, inviting us with open arms to rejoin the feast of God’s kingdom as our best selves. May it be our prayer this day to set aside and turn back from whatever it is that keeps us from living as Christ’s hands and heart in this amazing and blessed world of ours, that so desperately needs a reminder that it is amazing and blessed. We are the keys to God’s kingdom – Beloved of God, it is time for us to rejoin the feast!