The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
I’ll call her Patsy. I visited her in a nursing home outside of Philadelphia a few years ago. I’d known Patsy for nearly 29 years. She was in her 90’s now. In fact, she served on the committee that recommended I be called to my first congregation. And she was secretary of the congregation for years, a powerful woman.
Her husband was the treasurer. I’ll call him Duane. They never had children. They just had money. Duane doted on Patsy. New precious gems every year, furs, travel, Cadillacs. They lived well. And they shared their lives. They became something like parents to me. Back in my first parish I needed parenting.
Duane died some years ago in the room they shared in that austere nursing home. Their money was gone. He had doted on her because she was his frail, precious flower. He died. She lived. I always thought she was stronger than the rest of us combined. She was.
When I went to visit her that hot summer day she wasn’t in her room and I thought she must be dead. I had moved to Minnesota and we had lost touch because she could no longer write, or use a telephone, for that matter. But the nurses that day said she was at lunch in the dining room. I swallowed my surprise and went to find her. Looked around. No Patsy. I asked an attendant for her and she pointed to a woman I had looked straight at. Her hair was gray. She never had gray hair when Duane was taking care of her! There was food spilled down the front of her cheap, tattered dressing gown. Her beautiful teeth must have been misplaced. She had a smile full of gaps.
But she had a smile! “Well it’s about time you showed up, honey. Get over here and give me a hug!” she said. I did. So Patsy, how are you? I’m great! Couldn’t be better! Not what I expected. Not at all. I expected mourning for Duane, mourning for money and cleanliness and position in the community. How are you? “Full of life, so watch out buster!” And she was. We had a great chat. We always had great chats, but things had changed so much. It had been so long. But, we had a great chat. A chat full of rejoicing.
It was a shock to me, the way that St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians must have shocked them. I see him lying in that rock hard cell, imprisoned for preaching Jesus as the Christ. I see him lying there, bound, maybe by chains, maybe by ropes. Bound so that he was bound to suffer. He did. But all to no avail. He couldn’t, he wouldn’t stop rejoicing. God was too good.
Near the beginning of the letter he wrote, “the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” Paul a prisoner because of the good news of Jesus, rejoiced.
Later he wrote to his readers, he wrote to us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
There is no lack in Paul’s life. There is only fullness. There is no anger at his preaching being silenced. There is only rejoicing at new opportunities to bring good news into people’s lives. Prisoners, readers, jailers. Didn’t matter. They all needed to hear good news. They all needed to learn how to rejoice. We all need to hear Paul’s command: “Rejoice!”
Today St. Matthew puts an allegorical parable into Jesus’ mouth. Allegory: everything equals something else. The king = God; the son = Jesus; the marriage feast = the great marriage feast of the Lamb of God at the end of time, and so on. It’s a complicated story, and it’s grown more complicated over time as Matthew and others have added new layers of meaning to it.
The people who were invited to the wedding, Israel, didn’t show up. Slaves who were the prophets did their best, but Israel didn’t listen to them. Instead, they rejected them with all sorts of violence. Finally, in 70 A.D. invaders destroyed Jerusalem. And the church was sent out on an evangelical mission to gather together the good and the bad, throughout the world, through the ages.
But, see, what happens here is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is expanded to reach out to all people. It’s not just for Israel anymore. So the allegory becomes a parable about God’s abundant grace. God’s abundant grace that welcomes everyone whether or not we are worthy of that grace. We have been chosen by God to feast at the wedding banquet. And God has made us worthy to be parts of the kingdom solely by God’s grace and generosity. Rejoice!
But then, there is a bizarre turn. At the end of the parable there’s another little story tacked on. The king came into the wedding feast and saw a guest there who was pretty much dressed in a tee shirt, wiping his greasy hands on his stomach. “Friend!” (Notice the sarcasm. It’s like saying, “Hey, buddy!”) “Friend! How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Nothing. How do you talk to a king when you’re wearing a tee shirt and stuffing your mouth and your pockets with his food? “’Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
In other words, something is expected of us when we answer the call to come in to the feast. Table manners. An appropriate response. When God made a covenant with the ancient Israelites, they were expected to be faithful. When Paul taught new Christians he not only told them that they should rejoice, he also taught them how to rejoice, how to live, how to respond to God’s love given in Jesus. Be gentle. Don’t worry. Pray. Give thanks. Be honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable. Think thoughts about excellence. And you will have peace.
Today, like every day, our response is God’s greatest longing. Today, our response in faith and trust is God’s greatest longing. Today, our response made with joyful hearts, made with hands that are raised in supplication and rejoicing is God’s greatest longing. We can lose family and home and be imprisoned in a nursing home or a cold jail cell and still live full and meaning-filled lives. God’s grace is abundant beyond our comprehension. Just ask Patsy. Just ask St. Paul. All we need to do is to respond – abundantly. It’s good table manners. Amen.