The Invitation: Unconditioned but not Unconditional

I had the great privilege this morning of giving the homily at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Langley. Fr Kevin has become a valued and great friend over my time here. It was an honour to join in their service today.

October 11th, 2020

Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is one of those parables of Jesus that isn’t easy to understand and certainly less easy to preach about! I said a few weeks ago that we are a season of teaching at the Jesus School and the lessons are getting more difficult. That doesn’t not mean that we can avoid or ignore the bits that we find difficult!

The parables of Jesus are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – this certainly does that. They are also meant to show us who God is and who God isn’t. Many read this parable as God playing the role of the king, Jesus the king’s son whose wedding it is, the Jews are the guests that are invited but don’t show up and then get killed for it, and the rounded up, unwashed good and bad at the last moment are us Gentiles. This understanding, while neat and tidy, flattens this story and avoids looking at what it is really about.

The second problem with this flat reading is what does this say about God? Is he a tyrannical king who kicks out the guests who turn down his invitation to be killed in the streets while the city burns? I think not! If we believe that God is our loving Father who ultimately wants what is best for us – then the idea that He is like this king is incorrect.

Where does that leave us?

“The Wedding Feast” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube

We can maybe relate to the kingdom of heaven being is compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for this son and the invited guests did not come. Maybe we have invited family or friends over for a meal or a party and they don’t turn up. Maybe they forgot, or there was a falling out or they got a better offer. Likewise, all people (all means all) are invited into the kingdom of heaven, God’s invitation knows no limit.

In both cases there are consequences. This is what we don’t like. I volunteer as the police chaplain for Thames Valley in Slough. It is a fascinating role! Ultimately the police are dealing with the fallout of the consequences of people’s actions, generally the wrong ones. People resist arrest, go out on the lam, do some crazy things to not get caught, all in a bid to avoid the consequences of their actions.

If you invite someone over and they don’t turn up – there are consequences. You have wasted your time cleaning and cooking; you have spent money on food and drink that might go to waste and likely your feelings will be hurt at the lack of consideration and respect shown. While annoying, these consequences are more inconsideration and lack of respect.

The refusal of the invitation into the kingdom of heaven has far more severe consequences. There is a sense of anger and urgency in Matthew’s story (maybe this is what makes this parable hard to understand). Part of the anger is generated at the beginning of the scene. The King is throwing a party for his Son, it will be glorious and spectacular, a big celebration, people would beg, borrow and steal to get an invitation. But these strange people do not seem to care. What should have been time for a party turns into a war zone. Clearly these people do not care about their future King. This rejection of him is both personal and corporate – they not only reject him but their share in the future nation he represents.

St Gregory the Great explains that in their frenzied pursuit of the is world’s goods, the first set of guests fail ‘to take notice of the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation.’ The murderous response to the king’s slaves shows the depth and nature of human hostility towards God.

The second point of anger comes out of the sense of urgency in that the banquet is ready to start, the food is on the table and the drinks are poured and it is all about to go to waste. The people will never again get invited to a royal wedding again. The invitation has been rejected.

The King then throw open the invitation to all, it is unconditioned, but it is not unconditional. There are consequences. Just as the wedding guests must dress in an appropriate way for the feast, so repentance and faith are needed to enter the kingdom of God. In telling this parable, Jesus is warning his disciples against a naïve underestimation of the power of sin. Some people will experience ‘the outer darkness’ for failing to accept the invitation. Throughout this series of parables in Matthew 21 & 22, Jesus wants his audience that they are in real danger of passing up their chance to share in the kingdom of God. Jesus and the kingdom of God go together and cannot be separated. If you reject the Son, you reject the King. Many of those listening to Jesus, like the invited guests, did not want to believe this.

The invitation to the feast has been a long time coming, in both Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25, a feast is being prepared. Isaiah has a rich feast, of well matured wines and rich food. The Lord will wipe away the tears from faces and take away the disgrace of his people. Is Psalm 23, the table is spread in the presence of mine enemies and the cup runneth over. The time is now, there is urgency in the message.

Will we accept it? Will we put on the right clothes and attend? St Augustine said, ‘the garment that is required is in the heart; not on the body.’ If we are not here to celebrate with the Son, then there is nothing for us. The warning is stark but also real. The truth of this parable, Tom Wright says, ‘God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered. They are the clothes you need to wear for the wedding. And if you refuse to put them on, you are saying you don’t want to stay at the party. That is the reality. If we don’t have the courage to say do, we are deceiving ourselves, and everyone who listens to us.’

Let us not be deceived. The invitation is there, we are all on the guest list. We need to be dressed and ready. Ready to be changed into the people God made us to be, ready to celebrate and share in the Good News. The banquet is set and ready. Are we?

Harvest & Creation with St Francis & Sir David Attenborough

Sermon for Parish Harvest
October 4, 2020

Psalm 148:7-14
Galatians 6:14-18
Matthew 11:25-30

We are not unawares that the seasons are changing! I am still somewhat resistant to socks and coats but have turned the heating on. This change of season tells us that it is the time for the harvest; time to pause and give thanks for God’s provision and goodness to us. I am under no illusion that many people will find it difficult to give thanks this year. More jobs are at risk, the food banks are busier than ever, times remain uncertain and the rules are changing.

Yet – God is bigger and beyond our circumstances. Jesus addresses God in the Matthew reading by saying, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.’ Let us try to start today with that big view of God.

Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement in the church to celebrate ‘Creationtide’ or a ‘Season of Creation’ over the Sundays in September, culminating on Harvest Sunday. We are encouraged to not only give thanks for the harvest but also to consider the environment, creation, the current crisis and how we play a part in damaging God’s creation but also how we can work to fix it.

No one is exempt. We might not want to take responsibility, but we cannot deny that our actions of everyday life have an impact on the environment. If you woke up this morning in a warm house, had a cup of coffee or tea with milk & sugar and some breakfast food, washed and put on clothes – you have made an impact on the environment.

I was struck this past week as I watched Sir David Attenborough being interviewed on BBC Breakfast. He was asked by Louise Minchin, ‘if there’s one choice to make today, what choice would you like people to make?’ He paused for a moment, and then said, ‘don’t waste. Don’t waste anything. Don’t waste electricity. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power, just treat the natural world as though it is precious, which it is. And don’t squander the bits that we have control of.’

I think he is absolutely right! We should do as much as we can to reduce our waste. It may mean living beyond our convenience, which, if we are honest, we do not like to do! It means new ways of doing things, paying more attention to what we buy, how it was made and what to do about the waste.

I don’t want to flog or guilt anyone this morning, I am very aware of the considerable stress and pressure many people are under currently. This needs to be balanced with the urgency to be more aware and better education on our impact on our planet. Notice I didn’t say ‘the planet’ – it is our planet.

How as Christians can we do this?

The answer is reasonably straightforward: Root it in the Gospel. By this I mean worship the Creator and then the created! Many people will say that they don’t need church, they experience God in creation, in a sunset or on a mountain top, at the beach. I take the position that unless your life is orientated towards God in the first place, you will not meet him in rainbows and flower petals. This is worshipping the created and not the Creator.

I admire David Attenborough; I think that the work he does is magnificent. He has captured the attention of millions of people around the world like few else have on issues of the environment. He is a great man of science but not of faith as a professed agnostic. We should follow the science and yet we need to go further and worship the Creator.

If we love Him first – then we will love his creation, the creation he gave us to look after, care for right from the beginning. In Genesis 2, Adam was given responsibility for working and caring for Eden and the naming of the animals. So huge was this job that he needed a suitable helper and God created Eve.

The responsibility to care for God’s creation has not changed since then. It may have fallen out of fashion, we may have forgotten about it or dropped it as a priority, but God certainly has not. We are part of the created order and need to renew our commitment and reclaim our responsibility for it. It is not just about our practices and habits but about our attitudes.

I have been surprised and inspired by the conviction of many young people over their concern for the environment. I may not fully agree with the way they protest in some cases but their dedication to the cause is unwavering.

As Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 11:25, ‘I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’ Maybe it is the voice of the children that we are to listen to. They are the ones who must care for creation long after we are gone.

Today is also the Feast of St Francis which would have been celebrated at St Francis this morning. St Francis lived about 900 years ago and a quick Wikipedia search indicates that he lived a very interesting life in Italy. Although he is the Patron Saint of Ecology and animals, he did a great number of other things: had some big issues with his father, bucked all family expectations, founded the Franciscan order of friars and then an order for sisters with St Clare of Assisi, he travelled extensively, was blessed with the stigmata of the nails marks of Christ on his own hands, and he even tried to negotiate peace during the Crusades (unsuccessfully).

All through his life and ministry, St Francis had a deep love for creation as he saw God in it. He wrote Canticle of the Sun, which praises and thanks God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Water and Fire, all of which he saw as praising God. St Francis invited all animals, plants, natural elements to give thanks and praise to God. This is no tree hugging stuff!

Francis provided a bigger vision of the creation we are all part of, he reminds us that God is very much at the heart of creation and all creation worships him. In 1982, Pope John Paul II said that love and care of creation by St Francis was a challenge to contemporary Catholics to “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

In and through Jesus, we are a new creation as Paul tells us. We are made in God’s image and part of his created order. We have a responsibility as part of that order, to listen to the voice of the children, to worship the Creator, not to waste creation for our convenience but to love and care for Creation. Creation is a great gift of God, it is precious. Let us treat it better than we do.