Sermon preached in Lincoln Cathedral by The Very Revd Bob Hardy
at the Sung Eucharist on Sunday 9th October 2011, 16th Sunday after Trinity
It never ceases to amaze me that one usually discovers something new in the Scriptures each time one reads them. Take today’s Gospel: the Parable of the Invitations to the Wedding. I’d always regarded it as one story but all the commentators remark that it’s best understood, if we take the two parts of the story separately: the issue of the invitations first and then the scrutiny of the guests by the king.
The actual events of the parable as Jesus related them were completely in accordance with Jewish custom. When invitations to a great feast like a wedding were first sent out, no time was ever stated. Then, when everything was ready and prepared, the servants were sent out with an official summons, to tell the guests to come to the feast. So the King in this parable had long since sent out his invitations, but then, at the final summons, many of the guests insultingly refused to attend.
You can take the meaning as a driving home of the point that Jesus was making in the parable of the wicked husbandmen. Ages ago, the Jews had been invited by God to be his chosen people, but when God’s Son came into the world, and the Jews were invited to follow him, they contemptuously refused. And so the invitation went out again, to the people in the highways and byways – to the sinners and the Gentiles who never expected an invitation into the Kingdom of God.
That, perhaps, was the purely local meaning of the parable as Jesus told it. But, equally, the story has things to say to us on a much wider scale. First, it reminds us that the invitation of God is the invitation to a feast, a feast as joyous as any wedding. Too often we think of Christianity as something slightly gloomy; something where we have to grit our teeth and give things up, rather than celebrating and enjoying the good things of God’s creation. It is to joy that the Christian is invited, and it’s joy that we miss out on by refusing to respond.
Second the story reminds us that the things which make us deaf to Christ’s invitation are not necessarily bad in themselves. (Remember one went off to his farm, another to his business.) There’s nothing wrong with being occupied and busy with the affairs of this life, but there’s everything wrong when they push out the things of God. So often, you know, we can be so busy making a living that we forget to make a life. God’s invitation to us is the invitation of grace. Like those folk from the highways and byways we have no claim on God. It is his graciousness to offer us the invitation, his grace which gathers us in.
The second of these two parables is a very close continuation and amplification of the first one. It’s a story taken from two Rabbinic tales involving things and garments, telling us the duty of being prepared for the summons of God. It emphasises the fact that God’s invitation to us is always generous, and that the door into his kingdom is open to all. To enter, however, we must bring with us a life which seeks to fit and respond to that love which has been shown to us. Grace is not only a gift, it is a responsibility. You cannot simply go on living the life you lived before you met Jesus Christ. You must be clothed in a new purity, a new holiness, a new goodness. That was why, in the early days of Christianity, those who were baptised left their old clothes behind and were re-clothed with something new. It’s why in baptism and confirmation services, we are reminded we are given new life in the waters of baptism. The door is open, but it’s not open that we can continue in the same old way.
And, again, there is a more permanent lesson in this parable. The way in which a man or woman comes to anything demonstrates the spirit in which they come. If we visit a friend’s house in response to his dinner invitation, we don’t go in our gardening clothes. We know very well that it’s not the clothes which matter to our friend. Nor is it that we want to put on a show. It’s simply a matter of respect. The fact that we prepare ourselves to go there is the way in which we show our affection and esteem. It’s the same with God’s house. We don’t go to Church as part of a fashion parade, but we need always to go prepared, clothed in the right spirit – of penitence and faith, of reverence and expectation.
When I was a small boy I’d sometimes stay with my grandparents. My grandfather was a railway signalman, a great gardener, like many railwaymen, and a Church Warden in his parish church. He was always meticulous in his habits and in his dress.
“Grandpa, why are you cleaning your shoes?” I remember asking him one Sunday morning. He put down the brush and looked at me rather sternly. “Robert” he said, “if you were going to Buckingham Palace to see the King, you’d go with clean shoes. I’m going to Church to see the King of Kings, and I need to go prepared”.
It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten!