Friends, how did you get in here? That’s a serious question. Did you walk, drive, take the train? Did you come through the south or north doors, or through the slype, that little vestibule over there? When you arrived, did someone greet you with kindness, hand you a bulletin, tell you where to take your children or show you where to sit?
I know that you came here for a reason, even if I don’t know exactly what it is. The fact that you are physically present in this space tells me that you planned the trip. You readied yourselves to leave your homes. You did get dressed, in some way or another. Not that it really matters in Portland; if the naked bike riders were to stop by here some Sunday morning, I’m convinced we Trinitarians would welcome them warmly. And maybe even photograph their tattoos and put them on display in the Morrison Room.
While I don’t necessarily know your means or your motives for getting here, I do know something about what you—about what all of us—do when we arrive. One way of thinking about our Sunday gatherings is as a rehearsal for the eschatological banquet. That is, for the feast at the fullness of time that is a theme running through all of our lessons today. Recall that we heard Isaiah’s prophesy to the beleaguered Israelites on the heels of their devastating Babylonia exile, that they will enjoy a feast. Specifically, a feast of rich food, well-aged wines, rich food filled with marrow, and well-aged wines strained clear. In emphatic Hebrew poetry the prophet insists that Lord of hosts will provide generously for all his people. Then we heard the familiar 23rd Psalm, promising that the Lord will set the table even in the presence of enemies.
Throughout history, God’s people have found themselves in trying circumstances: exiled, surrounded by enemies, or—as in the case of the Gospel parable we just heard—under the authority of an enraged king bent on punishing the guests who didn’t do his bidding. But even in the midst of danger and destruction, our scriptures still remind us that at God’s great party there will be safety, welcome and generosity. And in church we spend each Sunday morning practicing those values: rehearsing the hospitality and table manners of the kingdom.
Here at the Eucharistic dress rehearsal for God’s great party, we even hand out robes—you’ll notice that I am wearing one—and you should know that it was the custom in Jesus’ time for the host of the wedding to provide robes to the guests. So if the image of the ill-clothed party guest makes you flash back to every junior high dance where you doubted the adequacy of your clothing, well… you can just let that concern go. The community of Jesus followers that Matthew was preaching to would have known that the problem with this party guest wasn’t that he failed to bring the right clothes.
That said, I’m still wondering why that poor guy was unable to answer the king as to how he got in. He was given an invitation, to which he evidently responded. He was likely handed a robe that he didn’t put on. But he still had nothing to say about how or why he was there when the host asked “Friend, how did you get in here?” The gospel specifically notes that the kings’ question left him speechless.
Sometimes it takes a while to be able to answer the question of how and why we find ourselves in a particular community. But there’s no suggestion in the parable that the unrobed guest’s answer needed to be a theological treatise. “Your highness, I got in because I wasn’t busy doing anything else like all those other supposed guests.” Or “I got in because your slave told me to come,” or “I got in because I’ve been kind of curious about your son and I was hoping to meet him at the party.” Or even “I have no idea how I got here, and the clothes and the customs confuse me, but I’m open to learning more.” I hear a lot of the latter from newcomers to the Episcopal Church, and I’d like to imagine that any of those responses would have been sufficient.
Myself, I got into the banquet that is the Episcopal Church because I was a hormonal college freshman crazy about the boyfriend who invited me. I had never attended church growing up, so I had plenty of anxiety about what to wear to St. Paul’s, Grinnell. Not to mention anxiety about when to sit, stand, kneel and cross myself. All of which turned out to be totally unnecessary worries; there were much deeper questions about how and why I ended up there that I had yet to explore. It was not until the Eucharist exploded on my tongue—tasting of the goodness of Lord and the certainty that all matter was infused with holiness—that I realized how hungry I was. Hungry for a God who would risk being that intimately present to us, and for a table that table that would welcome everyone.
The Gospel parable we heard this morning is a complicated one. Biblical scholars say that Matthew has likely mashed up at least one, and possibly two other teachings of Jesus into the midst of the one we just heard. So we have, for example, the image of a king who invites everyone—good and bad—to the banquet. Radical generosity! But not until after he’s waged a devastating war on those preoccupied ones who refused the initial invitation. Radical violence. And then there’s the specter of the poor under-dressed guy who ends up in outer darkness. It’s a confusing mixture of messages, although the evangelist surely had good reasons for crafting the narrative in this way. Recall that he was writing just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, so his community was both grieving and struggling to maintain the authority of their largely Jewish identity. The stakes for Jesus-followers were high, the costs of getting it wrong a matter of life and death. So what comes to us, almost two thousand years later, is a parable laden with both compelling grace and terrifying judgement.
Even though our context differs substantially from Matthew’s, I’d like to suggest that those themes—grace and judgement—matter to us still. I made a short trip to California this week to connect with friends and family in the Bay Area, which meant that I flew over the Tubbs fire twice in 24 hours. I found myself choked with grief over the loss of life and habitat in communities I know well, and wondering if climate change is our generation’s equivalent of the destruction of the Temple. Our choices have consequences, as the authors of our scriptures consistently and compassionately try to warn us. In language that may be colorful and contextual, but is nonetheless true. Would a leader launch a war over something as trivial as a slight to his ego? Suddenly the exaggerated imagery of parables seems far less incredible.
There is indeed great risk out there, now as then. But in addition to offering some dire warnings, our scriptures repeatedly point us to the great and welcoming feast that God invites everyone to. In fact, the Biblical banquet often seems to be happening right alongside or even in the midst of the disaster. And I don’t believe that’s just the accident of a mashed up text. Because its exactly when there’s a threat of death that the invitation into alternative community becomes a matter of life. Putting on our party clothes and rehearsing for God’s banquet in the middle of danger is not an escape but a promise—a pledge, you might say—in the midst of a fearful and violent world.
To commit to the Christian and Eucharistic community is to live with courage—the strength of heart of that Nathan mentioned last week—and not to despair or a passive acceptance of a destructive status quo. That may put us on the front lines of advocacy for climate change mitigation or access to health care, or it may mean that that we step up to serve the hungry or the lonely, or it may mean that we give even more generously to ensure that that there’s room for the next person who crosses our threshold. It may mean we invest ourselves in ministries of welcome and incorporation, fostering small groups of intimacy and trust, and organizing ourselves for neighborhood-based pastoral care, as several of the volunteer teams I work with are doing.
It may even mean that we rival the crazy king in Matthew’s parable in our radical hospitality, going out to the streets and libraries and community centers where immigrants and refugees congregate. The Red Door Initiative and the Listen to Learn English language learner project are some of the ways that Trinitarians let everyone in Portland know that they’ve got a place at the table, and that we have plenty of tissue to wipe away every tear.
You may—like me—have gotten in here through curious circumstance, but you are here now. You are clothed in Christ, which is all the robe you ever need. So don’t be shy when anyone asks how you got here. Thank the person who brought you. Give voice to your longing for justice and gentleness for the earth and all her creatures. Join in the party, practice the culture of the kingdom, and invite others to come and be fed.