11 October 2020
Isaiah 25: 1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Last week we celebrated Harvest Festival and, as is traditional here, many of you and many others brought bags full of offerings for our food banks. In a normal year they would have been brought up to the altar and blessed and placed on and around the altar and the building and we would have seen how much there was. But, of course, we are not in normal times and we didn’t feel able to do that.
However, after the service, when I saw how much had been brought and left around the font I was truly amazed. There were dozens of bags and boxes, literally overflowing with your generosity.
I let everything decontaminate for a few days, no offence intended you understand, and then I took everything over to the Community Storehouse in Paddock Wood. I don’t mind telling you that they too were overwhelmed by the amount delivered – and they were doubly amazed that it came from one congregation and one service. A real testament to the fact that despite everything which has beset us in recent months there is still a vital Christian community in this place, eager to love and serve those around us. I give thanks for that, the Community Storehouse gives thanks for that as do every single person who will be able to eat because of your gifts. Thank you.
Who are the people who use the Foodbanks? Well, this week I have also delivered food to two people in Hadlow for the first time. One was a lady in her early 60s who had worked all her life but is not yet able to claim a pension. Sickness has now prevented her from working but is not yet in receipt of universal credit. Despite living in a supposedly civilised and wealthy country this lady had no money and no food and it took a string of phone calls from one agency to another before the vicar arrived with enough food to keep the wolf from the door for a little while.
The other were at the other end of their lives: a young family – husband and wife and a few young children. The husband is self-employed and seeking to build his own busines but the collapse in the economy means that there is little business for him and, because he is self-employed he wasn’t able to be furloughed and the process for claiming benefits is more complex. So, again, a family living in Hadlow who are trying to work hard for a living and yet their cupboards are bare and they have to ask for a handout to stop themselves literally starving.
The people who use the food banks are us. In the event of illness or divorce or unemployment or a simple downturn in the economy each and any of us could end up in that situation – an empty bank account, an empty cupboard, an empty stomach and perhaps even hungry children. Having to make a string of calls until you can get a modest handout of tins and pasta.
As a Christian I am honoured and delighted that we as a Christian community can care for our neighbours by feeding them – it is a deep part of our call and our outreach. But, as Christians, we should also be outraged by the fact that this is necessary in our society at all. People in our own village are not on the brink of going hungry because we as a society cannot afford to feed them, it is because political choices were made to make people wait before their claims were paid out, and those decisions were made by politicians who have no idea how most people live. Yes, we should feed the hungry, because Jesus tells us to, but we should also challenge why they are hungry in the first place. As a Church I want us to support the Food banks to the hilt, but as a Christian I want to live in a society that doesn’t need food banks for anyone.
Today, and not co-incidentally, our readings talk about both banquets and tears.
The gospel story is not just about a banquet, but it is a wedding banquet – and not just any old wedding banquet but a royal wedding banquet, which Jesus offers as a parable for the kingdom of heaven.
You would think that receiving an invitation to a royal wedding banquet would be a cause of joy and pride and might even provoke a bit of dressing up. But this does not appear to be true today, in fact the invitations were treated with scorn, even by some of those who turned up.
In this parable the king was giving the banquet for his son and he invited lots of guests, no doubt the great and the good of society, but it seems that none of the great and the good responded to their invitations. So the king sent out his servants to gently remind them that they had been invited to this marvellous occasion but, despite this first, gentle, reminder, they still would not come.
Although they had ignored both the original invitation and the first reminder, which let’s face it is the height of rudeness, the king sent his servants back out to the great and the good, and this time he sent them with the menu, to try and tempt them in:
“Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”
I don’t know about you, but I would definitely have gone at that point, although it does sound a bit like the Atkins diet, but never mind.
But those invited would not come even when told the menu. What is worse they did not make even attempt to make polite excuses – rather they made light of it – they treated the invitations like a joke and some went off to their farms and others went about their business. And, get this, others seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them and killed them. Sometimes you hear people say that they are bringing bad news but “please don’t kill the messenger” – Well, these slaves were bringing good news – you are invited to a brilliant party with loads of good food and, still, those bearers of good news were killed.
Until now the king has been patient and gracious, and he cannot be faulted for trying again and again to get the great and the good to come to this banquet – but everything has been thrown back in the king’s face, and he is enraged and he destroys those who killed his servants and even burned down their city.
Many commentators see this as Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem itself in 70 AD and, by extension, the fall of Jerusalem as being God’s judgement on Israel’s rejection of his messengers, the prophets and, of course, Jesus himself, who was killed for bringing good news.
But this is not the end of the parable. The king then sent out more messengers into the streets with instructions to invite everyone they find to the wedding banquet, and the messengers do exactly that, gathering both the good and the bad until, we are told, that the wedding hall was ‘filled with guests’.
So far, this sounds like a wonderful parable of God opening up the kingdom to everyone and, from one point of view, it would be jolly handy if the reading just stopped there and we could all feel good, but without being unduly challenged in any way. But the parable does not stop there and we are challenged to think a little harder.
The king comes into the wedding banquet to see the guests and they have all put on their wedding garment; all except one man. Immediately on entering the banquet the king’s eye fell upon him. Calling him ‘friend‘ he asked him why he was there. It is the same question Jesus asks Judas when they come to arrest him on the night of the agony: ‘Friend, why are you here?’
But the man without the wedding garment was speechless and the king ordered that he be bound and thrown out into the darkness.
On first reading this sounds harsh and unjust, but it is useful to know that it was the custom at this time for the host of a wedding feast to provide all their guests with a simple white wedding garment and all the guests had to do was to slip it over their heads in order to graciously accept their hosts hospitality and play their role in the banquet. The fact that this man was not wearing the garment suggests that he was actually treating the king’s invitation to the banquet with about the same level of seriousness as those who had originally mocked the invitations – he may have refused the garment at the door or perhaps even thrown it to the ground rather than put it on – he was at the banquet in body, but he was certainly not there in spirit, in fact he was sitting there as a continuing insult to the king by refusing to join in and the king responded by ejecting him.
In the Book of Revelation being clothed with the white robe is a symbol of being washed clean by the sacrifice of Jesus, and therefore of fully and completely accepting God’s invitation to the banquet to end all banquets. We are all invited to that banquet and God’s greatest desire is for each of us to accept that invitation. And yet, it is still always up to us to accept – and accepting doesn’t just mean not killing the messenger and it also doesn’t just mean turning up in body but not in spirit. Accepting God’s invitation to the banquet means putting on the wedding garment, the white robe, and taking our place at the table and honouring the king and his son.
In the reading from Isaiah 25 we are also given the image of God hosting a fine banquet for all peoples, with the best wine and the best meat, and in verse 8 we are told that: “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces” and this may also remind us of the promise in Revelation 21 of another wedding and another wiping away of tears:
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them…He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast of reconciliation; Sharing in this banquet is about becoming part of the grand work of reconciliation that the heavenly bridegroom inaugurates on the cross and which will be consummated in the heavenly banquet of which our Eucharist is a sign and anticipation.
For many people, even here in Hadlow, life can be a veil of tears and rather than having a banquet the cupboards may be empty. But today, if you are crying, whether on the outside or the inside, know that God wants you to join him around the banquet table of his kingdom and if we accept the invitation and put on the wedding garment then his greatest desire is to feast with us, to be with us always and to wipe away every tear.
We are invited to gather around the Lord’s table and share in his banquet. I can think of no greater invitation. And it is not a plus one, it is a plus everyone.