Take Your Invitations Seriously

Reverend David R. Melville

Francis Asbury United Methodist Church

Baton Rouge, LA

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Wow!  Two weeks ago I preached about equal pay for unequal work, in a country which is still debating equal pay for equal work. I preached on that topic because of Jesus’ parable about the late-arriving workers getting paid the same as those who had worked hard all day.  Even Snoopy couldn’t understand fully that parable, but he accepted it.

Then last week Bernie told us through another parable by Jesus that prostitutes may enter the kingdom ahead of preachers, and I kind of took offense to that.  Well, Bernie, I hate to brag, but I’ve got this parable today that puts yours to shame in the confusion department.  It is so violent, with such a surprise ending, that you’re going to have “parable envy.”

Matthew 22:1-14

            “Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner:  My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding banquet.”

But they paid no attention and went off – – one to his field, another to his business.  The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.  The king was enraged.  He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.”  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.  “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”  The man was speechless.

Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

For many are invited, but few are chosen.’”

 

You all have the advantage of a “mature,” “seasoned” preacher who is not afraid to sometimes share some secrets of the trade.  One such secret is that sometimes I want to apologize for scripture. Sometimes I am embarrassed by scripture.  Sometimes preachers are no different than lawyers in really reaching for a rationalization and spin on the story at hand.

Sometimes you understand why for fifteen hundred years after the Bible was canonized, laity were not allowed to read it.  It was spoon-fed to them by the priests.  The learned priests and elders didn’t think the common folk could handle what God was saying, and sometimes maybe they were right. Maybe today, even after five hundred years of study time, the Bible is still too hot for you and me to handle.  I bet you wouldn’t be hearing this from a newbie preacher this morning.

For a while during the debate over rating movies, c.d.’s, and books for content, some countered that the Bible ought to be labeled with an “X”, or at least an “R” rating.

I’m not exaggerating or setting you up for a happy ending today.  How can I sugarcoat or explain away the invited guests murdering the wedding planner?  And how does the parent – the king – respond?  Trumpian:  “Well, those I invited did not deserve to come.  I withdraw my invitation and will invite others.”  To President Trump’s credit, all he lobs are burning words.  In today’s biblical story the king (does the king represent God?)  torched the city of the ungrateful.

Then to add insult to injury, the spurned parent/king/God looks at one of the people who did have the courtesy to show up, does not like the way he’s dressed, and not only has the bouncer quietly escort the guest out of the palace; no, this guy winds up in the “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  That location was normally reserved for much worse offenses.  Thank goodness most churches have ended their dress code for worship.

And then the final zinger:  verse 14 warns, “Many are invited but few are chosen.”  What the heaven does that mean?  An invitation withdrawn at the last minute for even those who accepted the invitation?  “Few are chosen?”  Does that smack of Calvinism, in which our salvation is predestined, predetermined, and beyond our control?

I read one scholarly explanation of today’s tough scripture which suggests that it was written to teach us what God is not like.  In other words, God is just the opposite of the king.   God is inviting, always welcoming and gracious to the bitter end.  If that is so, why didn’t Jesus just say that straight up?

But you don’t pay me the big bucks to give up on parables.  So I’m going to hang in there and offer one indisputable and relevant take-away from today’s parable:  we are to take the Lord’s invitations seriously … certainly as seriously as we do other invitations … to weddings, birthday parties, to social events, to join a fraternity or sorority or club.  We endure hazing, initiation, stiff dues and work detail when we accept certain invitations; we need to commit the same dedication and passion when the Lord invites us to “Come, follow me.”  We should appreciate His invitation.  We disregard it at our peril.

A lot of church work boils down to inviting others to join us.   We dropped off fifty of these invitations to staff and teachers at River Oaks Elementary to a “River Oaks Celebration Sunday” in September, but as when the king invited many to his son’s wedding, no one from River Oaks came.  We distributed five hundred of these door hangers to our Old Hammond Highway neighbors for a special “Starting Over” Sunday this summer, but as with the second round of servants in today’s parable, nada. At least we weren’t murdered, as were the door knockers in Jesus’ parable!  We have invited other small churches to combine service projects – there’s “strength in numbers,” right?  No sale.  We haven’t had many visitors since the flood, but those few we did have did not accept our invitation to return.  Maybe we came across as too inviting … too desperate.  It can get downright depressing.  Think how God must feel.

Whether it be a long-time pastor, or one delivering his or her first sermon, our task is not to judge others.  Rather, our task is to examine ourselves and consider which invitations we are accepting.  In our free country, in which after age 18 we are free from anything forced upon us, including religion, it is up to us to choose which invitations we accept, and which ones we decline.  From the bright neon lights of 24-7 retail establishments to the nativity lights of Christmas, America is a land of inviting, alluring, tempting, teasing opportunities.  Which invitations will you accept?  Which invitations – opportunities — will you take seriously?

Just think about this Fall at Francis Asbury.  Of course, you are invited to Sunday School and church each week.  You are invited to United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men meetings.  On December 3 you will be invited, for the first time in a while, to sign the dotted line on a financial commitment form.  It will represent your definition of tithing in 2018.

You will be invited to the Lord’s Table for the sacrament of Holy Communion more than once.  You will be invited to food and fellowship and fun at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Who knows; we might be invited to a funeral or memorial service for one of our own.    We are kind of over-due.  Addicts are invited to any number of recovery group meetings in the parish every day.  We host one here at the church each Wednesday evening.

And oh, how many invitations are on our plate right now for helping others?  Hurricane relief, earthquake relief, refugees, veterans, rescue dogs and cats, hunger pangs from Baton Rouge to the Sudan. You were asked to donate school supplies; you have been asked and urged to help Kevin and Amber here at the church.

The United Methodist Church asks, but does not require us to promote six special offerings, with posters and envelopes and collections for really good causes. These special offerings are on top of our required apportionments.  I don’t know how Odell handled them, but I confess I  have been very derelict at each church I’ve served, including this one, in issuing and following up on those six worthy invitations.

Today I’m going to give each of you an invitation as you leave to learn more about, and to support in various ways:  Bread for the World, a well-respected world-wide organization which daily pricks our consciences with the hunger that exists in the world, and what we can do about it legislatively and charitably.  You can R.S.V.P. to Bread for the World’s invitation or not.

You’ll probably be invited to more than one Halloween party, pumpkin patch, fair and festival.  Mardi Gras Ball invitations are being mailed out now.  For some reason, Americans are really into masks!  Winter ski trips are being booked now. Some invitations have to be mailed well in advance of the actual event.

So maybe that’s part of the lesson in Matthew 22: 1-14 … We will be faced with no shortage of invitations in the next few months, and your R.S.V.P. to attend or decline will have consequences.  Hopefully not as dire as the man who didn’t dress properly … who didn’t accept the invitation correctly and properly … but consequences nonetheless.   Your R.S.V.P.’s reflect your priorities and your faith.  Your R.S.V.P.’s are up to you.  It’s a free country.

As for verse 14, “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (sounds like a recruitment pitch for the U.S. Marines), I’ll leave that up to God to explain.    I’m just going to worry about showing up at the right time and the right place where I believe Jesus will be.

I also will give some more thought to the premise of  one scholar I read this week … a Jesuit priest … who suggests that today’s parable may be saying that belief is not enough; as Bernie said last week, talk is not enough; what does the Lord require of us?  Action.

Despite our emphasis upon justification by faith and not works, perhaps we ought to still read and re-read the Book of James, which warns that faith without works is dead.  It’s not enough to just show up.  We must show up ready to work for the kingdom.  We must show up ready to work in the vineyard.  It’s not enough to piously and publicly pray and to cry out “Lord, Lord,” without doing anything more.  Otherwise why does Jesus say in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven?”

So good luck with picking through your invitations this Fall.  They are never-ending, are they?  You are constantly being tugged and pulled for your time and your money.  You can’t do it all, you can’t attend everything.  So do take your invitations seriously. One definition of a lifetime is the sum total of how we used our time and how we used our resources.  Another definition of a lifetime is the sum total of those invitations we accepted, and those we respectfully declined.

I close this morning with the most important invitation of all:  to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life; to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  I should not assume everyone has, and if you have not accepted Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me,” and if you have not accepted Jesus’ invitation to “Take up your cross and follow me,” I invite you to do so today.  I guess the deadline for doing so is your death, but why not go ahead and R.S.V.P. early?  The host always appreciates our responding on time!

                      Closing Hymn: “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow”  (#338)