Candles burn around the room, an aisle bordered with garlands runs before you to an altar, and behind you tables stand laden with decanters of wine, elaborate settings of silver, and everywhere, flowers. Are you in church? Are you somehow back in college, at some festival hall? Outside darkness gathers, as does the silence, and then you see that you are not alone: in the far corner, standing, ill at ease, there is a young woman looking toward the entrance behind you, and with her a young man, who scans the vast, empty room. Outside now the silence breaks, a crowd passes, loud, shouting, laughing, and the couple stand alert together, expectant, but the crowd moves on. And then you wake and realize that others have been seated all around you; music strikes, voices singing, brass and woodwinds, organ and timpani, as outside, the moon rises and long shadows fall.
Good morning! What a happy weekend it has been! Anne and I rejoice to have joined you in honoring distinguished Concordia graduates, in hearing the stories of your reunion classes, in cheering on the Cobbers, and best of all, in welcoming you home. Each of the four scripture readings for this morning—Isaiah 25, Psalm 23, Philippians 4, and Matthew 22—presents us with a strange, in many ways dreamlike setting of festival in the midst of fear. Let me pause for a moment to thank Pastors Megorden and McHan for always giving me the weird texts when it is my turn to preach!
So for this Sunday,
- From Isaiah, we have the picture of a fortified city that God has laid to waste, an image placed beside a feast of rich food and wines, a feast at which the Lord of Hosts will feast on death, swallowing it up forever;
- In Psalm 23 we have the speaker walking through the valley of the shadow of death and then, suddenly, before a festive table in the presence of his enemies;
- Paul writes from prison to tell the Pilippians to rejoice, and as if they didn't hear the first time, says again, rejoice.
- And then most strange of all, Jesus—now in Jerusalem, beset by religious powers who will seek to take his life—tells a parable. 
The kingdom of heaven is like this, says Jesus:
A king sends his servants out to fetch those whom he has invited to the wedding reception for his son and that son’s bride. But none of them will come, even after the king has sent the servants again to describe how wonderful the banquet will be—and those scornful guests kill the servants. Enraged, the king sends his army to kill the killers, and sends servants out again, into the streets, gathering everyone and anyone they can find, fashionable and forlorn, strong and weak, rich and poor, bad and good.
Okay. All this is bizarre enough, and so far doesn’t feel, to me at least, much like heaven. But the B-list guests have now arrived, all the understudies are on stage, a bit surprised no doubt to be all called up at once. But things improving—and the guy stuck with preaching on this text for Homecoming Weekend can see some light ahead: we’re going to have the banquet after all.
But now the king himself comes into the banquet, seeing a poor fellow who didn’t get the word on the dress code, having arrived without his wedding robe, and the king demands how he got in without it. This wretched fellow can’t think of anything to say, and the king orders him bound and tossed out into “the outer darkness” (have you noticed that darkness looms around all of the passages for today except Paul’s—and he is writing from a jail cell?).
So this is the kingdom of heaven? An empty wedding hall, an angry father, a set of killings followed by a reprisal of killings, followed by what was, almost, sort of a happy ending until a poor guy pulled in off the street at the last minute—was he supposed to have rented a tux on the off chance that he might get an invitation?—is tied up and tossed into the dark. Which of the characters in this story do you want to be? The groom? The angry father? The unmentioned but undoubtedly bewildered bride? The scornful, murderous original wedding guests? The fellow who offended the dress code and got bounced into the miserable night? Is the lesson here something like “Go thou, and do not do like any of these characters”?
I am tempted to distract our attention now—wasn’t that a great victory on the gridiron yesterday?!—but we’ve got this strange story staring us in the face. Well, for one thing, it is a story, a parable rather than a news account from the Fargo Forum or the Star Tribune or the Billings Gazette. It’s much more like a dream than a documentary. Biblical scholars tell us that this parable appears in the context of high tension between those faithful Jews who saw Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah and faithful Jews who did not—with a warning that even those who came to the wedding banquet of God’s son had great expectations placed on them. So that is one context that can help us understand the different sets of wedding guests. The other context of course is that Christ is standing in Jerusalem, surrounded by hostile powers, and close to an agonizing death.
So if it is like a dream, it suggests these things: there is a feast laid for us, laid for us in the midst of violence, a festival of light set in the midst of darkness. Our health, our joy, our very life: they all arise from the capacity to rejoice. And here is the connection to the other three readings for this morning: in every one, God’s people are called to rejoice in the face of the shroud cast over them, in the valley of the shadow, from the confines of Paul’s prison cell, in the approaching torment of the cross. Of these texts, Psalm 23 is by far the most familiar: we all know it without trying, and most of us know it from funeral services in which its lines have been a source of consolation in the midst of loss. But that familiarity can mask the strangeness of the psalm: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” A strange feast that would be.
Yet we know—every one of us here on this Homecoming morning—that this is so. A true story now, from many years ago. I will tell it in the present tense.
I have, through the grace of God and the goodness of my thesis advisor, just passed my dissertation oral exam in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and with Anne I’m looking forward to a party our friends have planned there, a party that will also be a farewell since I’ve already started my first post-doctoral teaching job at a school in Maryland. We go to the home of Chapel Hill friends to get ready, John and Nancy Nelson, who later became god parents to our first-born child, but Anne pulls me aside to tell me that my beloved grandfather, Victor Minteer, died while I was in my exam.
And so the airport instead of the party, and the flood of sorrow awaiting us when we arrived in Pennsylvania. But that is not what I most remember. I remember walking into my grandmother’s kitchen—a room I had walked into almost every day of my childhood, having lived just five minutes up the street. Esther Ellis and Peg Sharp are at the kitchen table, greeting us, readying the food for the reception after the funeral. The house on Neshannock Avenue fills with laughter, and before I can feel grief-stricken again, Tom Johnson, my grandfather’s childhood friend who played along side of him on their college football team, is telling me that when they were freshmen, the upperclassmen on the team declared that any one of them who dared come up the stairs to where the older players were meeting would get a thrashing: Vic, all 135 pounds of him, was the first one on the stairs, Tom tells me, laughing with delight. And on the front porch in the late September afternoon, my grandmother is making sure her guests are at ease.
Rejoice in the Lord always, says St. Paul, and again I say, rejoice. And so, on this Homecoming morning, do we. The communion table is spread before us, even in the presence of enemies whom we must fight or endure, and even in the knowledge of oncoming winter and the shadow of death:
- In the face of enemies, we rejoice at this table.
- In the face of war and violence, we rejoice.
- In the face of cancer, we rejoice.
- In the face of grief, we rejoice.
- In the midst of our brokenness, our sad addictions, our crippling fears, we rejoice.
- With neighbors, those whom we know, those whom we have never seen before, those whom we have lost and found again, we rejoice.
We see the table set before us, the table that has been there all along, the table to which Love has bid us welcome, seeing in midst of the terrors and distractions that often blind us, seeing that God’s gifts of goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life. That we are not bound but free, free to love and free to serve and free, in the never-ending abundance of our God, to wear our wedding robes.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again we together say, rejoice.
1For useful commentary on each of the readings for October 12, see Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=10/12/2014&lectionary=rcl.
2See Lance Pape, Working Preacher for October 12, 2014, at
https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204. Pape’s reading has influenced my thinking about the passage as a whole.
3See Nancy Koester’s emphasis on the presence of enemies in Working Preacher for October 12, 2014, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2175.