Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity: ‘For many are called but few are chosen’ preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 15 October 2023 by the Reverend Rebecca McDonnell (Philippians Ch 4: v 1 – 9; Matthew Ch 22: v 1 – 14)
If you have children, have worked with children, or recall your own childhood, you know that sometimes kids take things completely literally, and little turns of phrase or expressions we’re used to using as adults get completely lost on them. Other times however they tell you a long and involved story, with made up plot and characters, but hidden in there might be a nugget of truth, revealing something about their day or emotions they wish to express but don’t know how to. Jesus teaches us like we are children, because to God we are, and it would be impossible for anyone to comprehend the great mysteries and complexities of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus had to spell things out in simple terms to his disciples and listeners, and to do so he employed the use of parables, something we all have been taught since we were in Sunday School. The other term to use would be ‘allegory,’ used in literature and also a specific branch of theology employed as one of many ways to read and understand scripture.
Allegorical passages such as today’s reading must be approached with caution, tales of violence such as this are fictional, used to convey a truth about the Kingdom of God, but in todays broken world can be difficult to stomach. The horror stories emerging on the news in the last week have sickened us all, and many are feeling increasingly anxious about how events might turn both in the Middle East and over here in the West. It is made more vivid in our minds as the atrocities take place in the Holy Land, modern day slaughter in the place where Jesus taught, and became a victim of horrific execution. To come to church and hear stories of violence can be hard, so please be gentle with yourself, but it is important to listen to what Jesus wants to teach us. How we get to the heart of the story and apply it to our lives.
In many ways this story has the same meaning as last week’s parable. At this point Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple knowing he is days, or hours, away from his own death. He is also aware of Pharisees and chief priests watching and waiting for a time to arrest him and put him to death. So again, the King represents God, the invited guests are those pharisees and leaders who do not accept their invitation to the King’s son’s wedding banquet (you can see where this is going…) The slaves sent out, which at best are ignored and at worst are killed are the prophets. The wedding itself is a metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and His people, and the banquet the heavenly feast. Matthew was a devout and educated Jewish man and was steeped in their metaphors, meanings, and traditions. When the slaves are sent out to the ‘main streets’ this means the edges of the territory, to collect up the good and bad, the Samaritans and Gentiles; for all are invited to the wedding feast. There is no ‘save the date,’ no ‘named guests only’ no ‘plus ones.’ Come now.
This gives us an eschatological insight into the urgency and the readiness of the wedding banquet. We can imagine the day is fading and the food is getting cold, the need to respond to the invitation is pressing. The story ends with an interesting extra addition, there is one man sat at the table who is not wearing a wedding robe and is thrown out into the darkness. This sounds like an over-reaction to someone not following the ‘black tie’ dress code on the RSVP. But we could maybe explain this as such; the wedding robes everyone else is wearing are the garments of Christ, and they are clothed in his mercy. The man who came to the feast without, has clothed himself in his own works and achievements. The good and the bad are called, but we all rely only upon Christ. We listen to the story and hear Jesus teaching us out of love; God is our heavenly parent.
It is no mistake that the first things we teach babies and young children are fairy tales and sing them nursery rhymes. These are coded with morality narratives, and warnings of dangers that might await them. Christian tradition is rich in liturgical and spiritual jewels in art, music and word that help us to deepen and enrich our faith and our understanding of scripture. And it’s not just historical, we continue to be creative and to create. Last week we had Christ the cornerstone, and I couldn’t help but hum two well know songs to me. One, a modern worship song, and the other from a Scottish punk/ folk artist. And how blessed are we here in this Abbey to have such a fantastic choir to strengthen our worship and make us think of heaven. We may not even notice how much of our daily worship and what we sing is Biblically based, and we continue to learn our whole lives as children, absorbing scripture, allowing Christ to enter our hearts and mould us. How we learn to live our Christian lives, out in the community, showing and modelling God’s love and care in turn to others. Taking the invitation to the main streets so that all can receive it.
In this way the words of our epistle reading from Philippians might be familiar to you, as it is echoed in liturgy and in many songs and hymns. We have gone from parable and story to something that resembles poetry, written by a man who is a prisoner to a community of people living in fear under social and economic duress. It is written to be memorable, to be easily accessible for those growing in the faith. It teaches us that we must REJOICE in the Lord, don’t just wait for it to come to you but practise Godly joy. It teaches us LOVE; be gentle with others, love each other, and love God for he is near, and we can come to him with our care and petitions. And it teaches us PEACE, that the God of peace is with you, a message much needed for our current climate. The peace of God that passes all understanding.
Our Gospel passage ends with ‘For many are called (kletos) but few are chosen (eklektoi.) ‘Called’ is the invitation sent out for the wedding banquet. ‘Chosen’ is God’s approval of that call after a fruitful life of doing God’s will. Those who respond to God’s invitation are the chosen ones who sit at the banquet, clothed in Christ’s mercy. Let us go forward from here, choosing to accept that invitation, sitting as children at God’s feet.