St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Proper 23a: 10/12/14
In the Name of God who is Love, Amen.
There's a scene in the Albert Brooks movie, "Defending Your Life",
that gives me sweet comfort.
It takes place in the afterlife
where the dubious and chubby Albert Brooks character
dines with the enlightened and thin Meryl Streep who, to his horror,
wolfs down chocolate cakes (yes, that's PLURAL).
The punch-line of course is that in heaven you can eat
as much of whatever you please and not gain a pound.
Can I hear an "amen"?
But the joke may be on Albert Brooks.
Because this scene he plays for laughs captures at least a morsel (pun intended)
of the serious truth behind each of today's lessons:
The vision of feasting on impossibly rich food
as an image of God's goodness and abundance in this life, and the next.
In the gospel lesson, we get the latest in a string of, frankly,
difficult parables about the Kingdom of Heaven.
It may not be your favorite parable, but here goes:
A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. Nobody shows up.
He tries again, sending out slaves to entice potential guests
with details of the elaborate menu. But they've all got their excuses.
Maybe they're as busy and distracted as we are.
The enraged king then sends troops to show he means business.
More slaves are sent to gather people off the street. Finally the hall is filled.
But now he spots a fellow not wearing the official "wedding robe".
The king suddenly turns hyper-active "fashion police"
and throws the guy waaaaay out of the party.
Whew. Obviously there's more than a fashion disaster at stake here.
Obviously this paints a rather uncomfortable picture of God.
That is, if you buy into the standard interpretation
which identifies the "king" as representing God and the "slaves" as prophets.
Where would that leave the people who are invited but don't show up?
Oh dear, might that be us -- people who are supposed to know better?
And that mix of riff-raff who got in after all?
Perhaps they show God's extravagant mercy and radical welcome.
But what about that poor fellow who was banished
for not wearing the proper garment?
Now I wonder if he could be us -- or at least a warning to us
about failing to recognize all of God's bounty, all of God's grace,
all of the goodness and power that's already ours in Christ.
It's not enough to be dragged in kicking and screaming.
You gotta look the part, dig into life. Rejoice, and give thanks.
Now you might think that, well, you haven't found life to be one big party.
From ISIS to Ebola, and the private sorrows we each carry,
there's plenty of heartbreak to go around.
But Jesus is at least as acquainted with suffering as we are.
Some see this parable as foreshadowing his own torture and death
which come just a couple of chapters later in Matthew's gospel.
Yet even as he prepares to die,
Jesus presents a picture of life as an extravagant banquet hosted by God.
Maybe this parable, in its convoluted way,
invites us to take God up on this offer.
To take all that life's banquet has to offer and to give thanks in all things,
trusting God to redeem all things --
even those we did not ask to be served.
In today's epistle, the second reading, St. Paul does this.
Did you realize that he was sitting in prison, facing possible death,
when he wrote the words:
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice."
Today's beloved 23rd Psalm says this too.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of trouble,
God spreads a table so abundant that one's cup runs over.
But the most majestic description of this divine banquet
appears in our first reading, from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.
Like the 23rd Psalm, it's often read at funerals
for it describes a place where the Lord God provides for all peoples
the ultimate feast of rich food and drink.
To the poor peasants who first heard this,
it must've sounded like having all of the cake with none of the calories.
And within that divine abundance,
God gives what no other host can:
Death swallowed up forever, tears wiped clean from every face.
If this seems like pie-in-the-sky,
let me assure that Isaiah intended it as bread for the journey.
He was writing in a time of real political and personal chaos.
The Kingdom of Judah was falling apart.
Its leaders, including religious leaders, were about to exiled from
the Promised Land into Babylon.
It looked like the party was over. Forever.
So Isaiah offers sustenance for the hardships to come.
God's love and goodness will suffice, he says;
there is still more than enough to go around
not only for the next life, but this one too.
I began this sermon quoting the comedian Albert Brooks.
Would it seem too far a jump to end it
by quoting the Anglican poet and priest George Herbert?
He, too, famously uses food imagery to convey
God's extravagant love and mercy.
You may have heard this poem before or studied it in school.
Why don't you just listen for now and take home a copy
to treat yourself later.
Love (III) by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.