Collect: "Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works ...."
Isaiah 25: 1: - 9 "For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat....This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
Psalm 23 "Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Philippians 4:4 - 13 "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be know to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God......In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
Matthew 22:1 - 14 "Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."
Note: Biblical quotations are from the NRSV except for the Psalm quotations which are from BCP.
Bible study is something we Episcopalians think is good for us, but often times we avoid it like Cod Liver Oil. I want to begin this morning describing a Bible study format being used in this great church of ours. This is a bible study format in which participants are asked first to reflect on the things God is asking of us in the passage they have selected to study. "What is God inviting us to do and to be in this passage from scripture?"; or "What is God asking us to do?" or "Who is God inviting us to be?"
Sometimes the question is phrased differently: "What are the demands of God." In any case, (and I'll return to this point later) people are then asked to reflect on the promises of God. "What is God promising us in this passage from scripture?"
After developing a list of God's invitations and promises, people are then asked to identify the barriers that exist for them, things that prevent them from accepting God's invitation and living into God's promises. "What are the things that get in our way, that prevent us from doing the things we want to do, from being the people we want to be? The promises of God are so wonderful, why is it that we don't pursue them with every ounce of our being? What gets in our way?"
The barriers to our living into God's Kingdom here on earth are numerous. The barriers are sin. Sin means doing our will, not God's will for us. Sin distorts our relationship with God. Sin enslaves us. Sin chains us. Sin imprisons us. Sin makes us captives.
In the next step of the Bible study, the leader speaks about the amazing grace of God. God loves us so much that God sent God's only Son who died for us so that our sins will be forgiven. God sent Jesus Christ into the world to live in human form and to walk the same highways and byways we do. Jesus faced the same barriers, the same temptations we do. Yet Jesus did not succumb. Jesus did not sin. And Jesus died on the cross for us.
Jesus Christ helps us overcome the barriers in our lives. God loves us so much, God did not send us a letter. God sent God's only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to live among us. God wants us to be in the Kingdom of Heaven so much that God sent Jesus to help us deal with the barriers, to overcome them, so that we can live in God's Household, in the Kingdom of God.
Many of us don't really believe Jesus died for our sins. But the truth is that God loves us so much, God sent God's only Son to live among us, to be tempted as we are, to face the same barriers we face. And Jesus died so we can live. Jesus died on the cross so our sins, our shortcomings, our failures, our inability to overcome the barriers, our inability to fully accept the invitation and live into the promises, are all forgiven.
God loves us. And God knows us so well, and loves us so much, that God forgives our sins so we might embrace each new day with a new resolve to strive to live faithfully. God sent God's only Son to die on the cross and to rise from the dead. Christ's death and resurrection set us free from the power of evil, sin and death. Christ's death and resurrection opens for us the way of Eternal Life. Christ's death resurrection allows us into God's Kingdom, right here on earth. Through death and resurrection, "Jesus drops the charges [quoting from a Gospel tune]." Jesus' death and resurrection allows me to know and experience God's grace. A grace which is unearned, undeserved, but real.
Through the grace of God, our sins are forgiven, our minds are enlightened, our hearts are stirred, and our wills are strengthened. God's grace truly is an "Amazing Grace." Thanks be to God!!
All these thoughts occurred to me as I read the gospel for today. The great generosity of God's invitation to us is reflected as the king instructed his servants to go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone they found to the banquet. God's heavenly banquet is open to all. It is God's fervent desire that each one of us will join in the celebration, in God's heavenly banquet.
But the story doesn't end there. Many of us are troubled by the fact that after the king issues his generous invitation, he then rejects the man who isn't dressed in the right clothing. I guess I can identify with this poor fellow. I've been to functions, where, after I had arrived, I realized I wasn't appropriately dressed. It's not a comfortable feeling. Fortunately, I've never been thrown out as a result!
It seems surprising, and a bit unreasonable, that the king rejects the man for not being appropriately dressed. After all, he had sent his servants out into the streets to invite all persons. Maybe the man could not afford the clothes appropriate for such an occasion. Maybe the man did not have time to return home to change his clothes. And if this is a story about the Kingdom of God, and if the kingdom is for all persons, even sinners, what is Jesus trying to say?
Perhaps his point is that there are still demands (you see, I assured you I would return to the point about invitations and demands...), there are still certain standards we must fulfill if we are to enter the kingdom. The wedding guests, the guests at the heavenly banquet must show they have been righteous and just in their dealings with others. They must have been good stewards. They must have used their God-given gifts responsibly and well.
Perhaps the man without the wedding garment is like we are before we are drawn into the close relationship with God, our Creator, and with Jesus Christ, our Savior. Many of us pay lip service to those words we say when our offerings are brought forward at the time of the offertory. "All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee." Although we mouth those words, we really do not believe them or do not pay attention to the words we are saying. We think everything we have is ours. We are into control. We think all we have is ours. And our money is one of our possessions we most wanted to hang onto and to control.
Stewardship education can help us deal with some of these control issues. Through stewardship education, we learn and begin to acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God. Then, we can begin to try to figure out how we can possible express our thanks to God for the incredible gifts God has entrusted to us. Perhaps then we will begin to hear friends witness to us about a critically important discipline in their walk with Jesus Christ, in their spiritual journey, in their quest to grow into the people God had created them to be. We may hear their witness that the tithe is an essential discipline for them in their journey. When we see the joy their relationship with Christ brings into their lives, the spiritual wholeness they seemed to exhibit, it may occur to us that perhaps the tithe is an essential discipline for us also. Their witness may prompt us to embrace the tithe as our discipline, as our minimum standard of giving for the first time.
As we became tithers, both in spirit and in fact, the tithe became not a burden, as some think disciplines are, it will become a way to become the person we have always wanted to be. It may lead us from being controlling persons with high needs to hold onto what we have, to the generous people God wants us to be. For the first time in our lives we may experience the true joy of giving. We may learn that giving is not a duty, it is not a burden, it is not something we ought to do or should do, it may become something we want to do because it draws us closer to Jesus Christ. We may sense we are becoming more like the person God created us to be. We may sense we are becoming not only a more thankful people, but a more loving people. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, may truly become part of our lives in a new and wonderful way. We may experience the joy of putting on the garment of love which God provides for each of us if we will but accept God's invitation. We may begin to experience the promises God makes to each one of us.
Perhaps the man without the wedding garment is like we are, one who has heard the Gospel but has not put on the garment of love God gives us. Perhaps after hearing the Gospel, he had not "put on" the new life of repentance, of generosity, and of faithfulness God asks of us.
Once we have heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we have been chosen by God for a new life of love. Therefore, we should dress in the wardrobe God has selected for us: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. We are to be even tempered, content with second place, and quick to forgive an offense. But most important, we are to wear love as our "all-purpose garment." We should never be without it. And having done all that, we are to cultivate thankfulness, singing our hearts out to God.
This is a life of stewardship. This is a lifestyle, an attitude of generosity and love. It is a lifestyle in which we are using all the gifts God has so generously given us to do the "good works" God expects of us. Let us ensure that every detail of our lives, our words, our actions, all we do, are done in the name of Jesus, thanking God, our creator and the giver of all good gifts, every step of the way.