St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Conway SC

Being at the wedding feast

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A
October 15th, 2017
St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

Exodus 32:1-14         Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel that we just heard is a tough lesson. It’s one of those readings that can be pretty jarring. Because the picture it seems to paint is one of harsh judgment. If you’re familiar with this parable, then the shock value of it might not be so pronounced, but just imagine that you’re hearing it for the first time. If you ARE hearing it for the first time, then I don’t doubt that you might be somewhat puzzled by our calling this reading, “gospel” - or “good news.” But this lesson actually does contain a tremendous amount of good news for all of us. And the good news is this: We take joy seriously. Being a part of the kingdom of God is not something that should be taken lightly. God expects something from us.     

I would be willing to bet that most everyone here has been invited to a wedding. Probably not many have been invited to a wedding at the last minute, but even so, I imagine that if you have, you didn’t decide to show up in gym shorts and a ratty t-shirt - unless the invitation made it clear that such attire was suitable. No, I’d guess that most everyone here works on the assumption that if you get invited to a wedding, then the expectation is that you’ll be wearing something suitable for the occasion. I know we live near the beach, where informal weddings are a regular part of our lives, but I’ve noticed that even informal weddings tend to have their own kind of dress code that people adhere to. The reason that this is so is that weddings, although joyful occasions of celebration, are serious business. There’s an awful lot of time and effort that goes into planning weddings - even informal ones - and the reason we gather to celebrate weddings is because two people, having spent time in serious discernment about their relationship, have decided publicly to declare their commitment to one another for ever. And because we want to honor that, we dress in a special or different way to show respect for the couple and for the occasion.     

Much the same could be said of funerals. I don’t think that many of us would think it appropriate to show up to a funeral wearing swim trunks and a tank top. Unless it was a very particular kind of funeral, most people would think it disrespectful to show up in such casual attire. So I think it fair to say that we ARE comfortable with the idea that when we receive an invitation to a wedding or are asked to attend a funeral, there is something at stake when we make a decision about what to wear. And what’s at stake is our desire to show respect for the occasion. I think we ARE comfortable with the idea that when we are asked to take part in a serious celebration, the assumption is that we’ll make an effort to take it seriously. 

I don’t want to take the analogy too far, or get caught up in the idea that showing honor and respect is simply a matter of wearing the right clothes. If that were the case, then you might walk away thinking that I’m advocating for a church full of suits and ties and Sunday dresses. I like bow ties as much as anyone, but that’s not the point. The point of the gospel lesson as it applies to church has nothing to do with our literal choice of clothing. When it comes to church, the point of the gospel lesson is that we are all invited to live in joy and celebration, but that invitation assumes that we’ll take the joy and celebration seriously. The open invitation asks whether or not we are willing to respond with a deliberate effort to be a part of God’s beloved community.

And the truth of the matter is that joy and celebration actually require hard work. Here’s where I’m going to brag a bit about St. Anne’s as a place of hard work and genuine joy. Some of you have heard me tell this story, but when I first visited this congregation, I was incognito. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2015. Only a handful of people knew that I was looking at this church as a potential place to serve, and they didn’t tell folks that Davis and I would be there that Sunday. We showed up a little early, and what we saw was a group of Christians hard away at work to make the worship of God as beautiful as it could be. And it WAS beautiful. It was a celebration full of genuine joy that the people here worked hard to make happen. And that’s what really drew me here.    

If you’ve found any joy in this church, then I want you to know that none of what happens here happens without a LOT of hard work on the part of a LOT of people. Even though we’re pretty laid back and easy-going, I want you to know that we don’t just throw things together haphazardly at the last minute. The altar guild, acolytes, readers, choir members, church musicians, ushers and greeters, readers, those who provide the refreshments after the service, the pastoral care team, the eucharistic visitors, the volunteers - a whole host of people put in a great deal of time and energy to make church happen. You might not guess it, but even a fair amount of work goes into the preparation of sermons! Building the bulletins, lining up the service participants, arranging the use of Lackey Chapel, putting out the flags, delivering the food we collect to CAP, meeting in committees to discuss church business, planning various occasions - all of these jobs are done by the members of this congregation with an appreciation for the fact that it’s only because of hard work that any of what we do here is possible. 

But here’s the twist. As much as we want to make the work of being the church easier for everyone; as much as we don’t want to expect too much from anyone, the truth is that we DO want every member of the church to do hard things. We want everyone to appreciate that being a Christian is not something that should be viewed as a side hobby. We want this church to be a place where everyone can know that the joy we may experience Sunday by Sunday is, in part, the byproduct of the joyful and deliberate response we give to God’s invitation to come to the banquet. 

As I said before, we take joy seriously. That’s why we hope that, as a community of believers, everyone here has both the opportunity and the invitation to participate fully in the life of the church. And we hope that everyone here will get involved in the hard work of the church; with an appreciation for the fact that what’s at stake is our ability to respond to joy with joy. Getting involved in the life of the church does require hard work, but it is a holy and joy filled work that I truly believe is preparing us for the celebration of the heavenly banquet in God’s kingdom.  


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