The Dangers of Grace (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 22:1-14


On a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago I had a moving spiritual experience. Like someone from a revival meeting, I came away from that experience wiping away the tears. But more tears of joy than of sadness. It was at the opening concert of the new season for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.

I went to the concert looking forward to one of my favorite classical pieces Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. But I was not prepared for Peter Boyer’s composition “Ellis Island: Dream of America.” I had never heard it or heard of it.

The conductor, Robert Moody, introduced it to the audience with a question. “How many of you have parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who first came to the United States through Ellis Island?” he asked. I was shocked. At least 25% of the audience raised their hands. Here in Germantown. All these sons and daughters of immigrants, who look so…well…white and American.

Then the music began, but in a unique way. There were photographs of people who came to this country through Ellis Island in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And the music paused for stories of immigrants, told by actors from Playhouse on the Square, that spoke of the their experiences of coming to America. There was someone who gave the account of coming here from Greece, and someone who told of coming here from one of the Baltic states, and someone who told of coming here from Ireland, and someone who told of coming here from Italy. Each would tell his or her story, and then the music would begin and swell and come to its denouement, leading to another story.

And the stories were so full of both pain and triumph, of leaving places where there was economic hardship and political turmoil (sometimes in just the nick of time before arrests and concentration camps and certain death in those camps). And sometimes the passage on those ships to America was rough with sea sickness a daily reality. But nearly all of those who told their story of coming to this country, spoke of those incredible moments of joy on the ship when they came into New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty. There it was. Beckoning to them. After so much hardship, a dream finally come true. They had arrived!

Then came those words by American poet Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty, which brought the concert to a close: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Strangely enough, I think of this experience when reading the troublesome words that are before us today from the gospel of Matthew. They are first of all about an invitation to come to a place of welcome and feasting. They are first of all about grace—an incredible grace, an amazing grace—offered to people who are in desperate need of it.

Come to the wedding feast, people are told. You are invited. Come enjoy. Come celebrate.

I think of the wedding of our oldest son Will and his wife-to-be Selyna. It came just a month before I was due to have open heart surgery. Not a pleasant time. But the words came: “Come. Come, Mom and Dad. Be a part of the celebration. Do the honors of officiating at our California wedding, Dad. Join with my friends and my beloved’s family in feasting and dancing. And so we came. Clear across the country we came. And, as my son’s friends were lifting him and his bride aloft on chairs to dance at the wedding feast, I was so glad to be there! It was an act of grace!

A few weeks ago, actually a few weeks before that concert where “Ellis Island: Dream of America” was performed, I had a sad exchange of texts with our friend Mary Lloyd. She had finally loaded up her worldly/household goods into a truck and was headed in that truck with her sister to her new home in Canada. She sent me a picture of the Tennessee River, which she and her sister, who was driving, were crossing over. “Getting closer to the birthplace shrine,” she said, speaking of the birthplace of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church near Dickson, TN. “No time to stop this time.”

“Too bad,” I responded.

“Yes,” she said, “neither Montgomery Bell, NaCoMe (where our denominational youth conference used to be held), or June-bug (referring to June Dotson, one of our children now living in Dickson with her parents)…If I was not with Dorothy, I would never get out of TN,” she said. “…so glad to have people and places in TN. Yes, pastor! Cumberland was a GREAT place for me to be for 23 years!!”

“So sad to see you go,” I replied. “But you can take some Cumberland to the Presbyterians in Canada.”

“Will do!!” she responded.

And I wondered for a moment what I meant, telling this former Presbyterian from Canada to take some Cumberland back to those Presbyterians. And then I remembered what I meant. From the beginning we Cumberland Presbyterians have been the “whosoever will” Presbyterians. We have been the Presbyterians who believed that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And that means that indeed God does love the world, and everyone in it no matter what. We are all invited to accept God’s love. We are all invited to feast on the banquet that God prepares for us. No one is left out—red and yellow, black and white, gay and straight, young and old, good and bad. We are all invited to accept God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Cumberland Presbyterian Christian. It is at the heart of what it means for Mary or anyone else to take some Cumberland into the church and the world where she or they are going.

So, as Matthew gives it to us, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast that a king gives for his son to which he has given invitations to a lot of people. And they have said yes, or presumably they have said, “Yes, we plan to be there.” So he sends out his servants to let them know that the feast is about to begin. The oxen and the fatted calf have been slaughtered and are now cooking. “Come on to the banquet!”

And I think of those weary immigrants, some of them sick about every day of their crossing, coming into New York harbor and seeing the city and the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Hallejuia! And I think of myself, enjoying the great food and wine, dancing with Linda, and watching Will and Selyna lifted on those chairs as the music plays. And I think of Mary, riding with her sister to her new home in Canada, where she will take the Cumberland she found here to those Presbyterians there.

Except as the story gets told in Matthew’s gospel, people don’t come to the wedding feast. They say, “No thank you. I’ve got other things going. I’ve got a farm to see about. I’ve got a business to run. I’ve got stuff I have to do.”

One of you asked me Wednesday night with a sly smile on your face, “Have you been over to see that new grandchild of yours? Or have you been too busy with your pastoral duties?”

“Sure, I’ve seen him. Spent the better part of this afternoon with him,” I responded. But I said that with a bit of guilt, because the day before I had not gone with my wife and her sister to see our new grandson because I had told myself that I had things to do. I had work to do. Things to see about.

The invitation goes out. God’s unconditional love is offered. Grace is given. But not everyone responds. Not everyone accepts. Some of us tell ourselves that we have too much else going. Others of us tell ourselves that we are not worthy, that the feast is meant for someone else who is more deserving.

The parable of Jesus, as we have it in Matthew’s gospel, tells of people who are invited to a wedding feast. And they turn it down. They can’t come. They tell themselves that they have too much going. The time is just not right. Absurdly, Matthew tells us that some of these people who can’t or won’t come to the feast even get testy and violent. They mistreat and even kill the servants delivering the invitations. It reminds Matthew of those who delivered the message and invitation of Jesus who were rejected and even killed.

And the king’s violent reaction to those who spurn his invitation and mistreat or kill his servants evidently reminds Matthew of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, in the time just before he probably wrote his gospel.

But the king will not be undone. And neither will God. Some/many may refuse his grace. They may refuse the invitation to his son’s wedding feast. So others are invited instead. The servants of the king are sent out into the main streets, and are encouraged to invite everyone they can find to the wedding banquet. Whether good or bad, they bring them in. So that the wedding hall is filled with guests. Talk about unconditional grace. Talk about “whosoever will.” This is it.

But then the story takes a strange and disturbing turn. One of these folks who is invited to the wedding feast off the streets is not properly attired. He is not wearing a wedding robe. And he is approached by the king, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” He’s got nothing to say. He’s speechless. So the king has his people bind him head and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Alas, the bad place that Matthew often speaks about in his gospel—“the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” we are told, as our story and scripture for the day is concluded. Not exactly an uplifting message that we want to take home with us from church today!

But the way Matthew sees it in this parable he tells of Jesus, grace ought to have a transforming effect on your life. Those folks coming into New York harbor, seeing The Statue of Liberty for the first time would never be the same again. I like to think that in her 23 years among us Mary’s life was changed. She will never be the same again. She has been transformed by the grace she knew here, the love she experienced here, the strength in the Lord that she found here.

Grace transforms, Matthew is saying. Being a part of the wedding feast ought to make a new person out of you. So, if you are not dressed up right, if you are not living the life that Christ taught and modeled for us, there is something wrong. If you have not “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Paul said to the Roman Christians (Romans 13:14), there is a problem.

The early Christians put on white robes when they were baptized as a symbol of the new life into which they were entering when they became Christians. As Paul said to the Christians at Galatia, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

So the feast is prepared, Jesus is saying through Matthew. And we are invited. All of us. Every last one of us, whether we consider ourselves good or bad, deserving or undeserving. The Statue of Liberty welcomes us home. Whosoever will may come.

But the coming is to Jesus—to his way, to his teaching, to the life to which he calls us. So come, whoever you are. Put on the robe. Put on Christ. Let the ways of the old world go. Accept the ways of the new. And don’t tell yourself that you are too busy, that you have got too much to do. And don’t tell yourself that you are no good, that you are one of the bad ones. Christ awaits. Christ wants to welcome you to the party. Christ wants you to enter into the life that he has in store for you. So come! Join the feast! And be welcomed home!

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, October 15, 2017

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