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Giving Thanks While the City Burns: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 11, 2020:
Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Today we may have just heard the most appropriate Thanksgiving gospel story for the year 2020… Lots of food, but the spectre of death and a city on fire.

It’s not just the troops, and executions, and burning of the city that’s disturbing, but after that we come to this lonely, silent fellow: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he gets tossed out of the party (out into a burning city). I read this and my reaction is: ‘what an idiot!’ He should know better. The scenario seems totally artificial to me.

But then I get thinking to something that happened in my own life. A number of years ago I was helping out with a local music festival, where bands were playing at different clubs and restaurants around town. Partway through the show we realized that we had one guy in the audience that was just causing no small disturbance that night: loud, obnoxious, stumbling; upsetting people, and getting in our faces. Behaviour like that is hard to handle in general, and not entirely unexpected at a loud concert on a weekend. But what shocked me was when I realized that this belligerent patron was a pretty well known and respected owner of a different local establishment. Not some first year university student, but a productive member of the local business community. How could someone that surely doesn’t want this sort of rambunctious behaviour happening in his pub, go and behave that same way in someone else’s? And as I threw him out into the outer darkness I hoped that some day I would be able to make use productive use of the annoying episode.

So maybe that silent guest with no wedding garment isn’t such a fake idea after all. Being invited to, and surrounded by, something so good doesn’t guarantee that we’re fully on board with it. That first reading from Isaiah talks about God’s ultimate plans for the world as a feast: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food… God will swallow up death forever… the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And Jesus picks up on that imagery of the feast. God is inviting us, and all people, to a banquet. And Jesus’s mention of that lonely guest’s wedding garment brings to mind the baptismal robe that the early Church would drape over the newly baptized person as they emerged from the water, which itself is a symbol of casting off darkness and putting on light, or as Paul wrote elsewhere, “putting on Christ.” And this is where we might realize that our faith can’t exist in a bubble, in a fantasy world where the holy mountain on which the banquet Isaiah describes is just some vague, mystical reality or idealistic dream. No, it’s meant to be lived out in the here-and-now, and God invites us, and wants us to be a part of it.

We all ‘know’ this, and yet it’s hard to fully grasp, let alone live out. And this is nothing new. Paul writes to the church in Philippi almost 2000 years ago: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel…” They know the message of the gospel, and they’ve experienced its power, having worked alongside Paul. But we are human, and something has gotten between Euodia and Syntyche. And something often gets in the way of ourselves and the wearing of our wedding garment — our baptismal garment — our putting on of Christ. Sometimes it’s something within ourselves. Other times it’s something between ourselves and someone else.

So how are we doing as guests of God’s banquet? How are we dressed? Thinking back to our baptismal liturgy, we ask ourselves: how are we doing with “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship?” In “resisting evil, and repenting and returning to the Lord?” In “proclaiming by word and example?” In “seeking and serving Christ in all persons?” In “respecting the dignity of every human being” and “sustaining and renewing the earth?”

That character, the silent, tragic wedding guest that I thought was unrealistically appended to the parable turns out to be a lot more real than I first thought. This is indeed a scary story told by Jesus. This is serious Jesus, in Jerusalem, his life threatened, and realizing that his time is short. He’s saying ‘you know, when I’m gone, I’m passing this on for you to take care of.’ And so silently we look within ourselves and ask how we’ve been doing with what we’ve been given. Which is a good Thanksgiving question, I think. How have we taken care of that with which God has entrusted us? We are human, and Jesus knows that as well as anyone, and so we will fall short. But I wonder if an attitude of thanksgiving is a good starting point for how to interact in the world, and in the Church; and the mark of a Christian. Because persisting in giving thanks can be the most effective way to stand up against a scary story like today’s parable, and against a horrible year like 2020. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter