I think I’ve mentioned before in my sermons that part of my regular, weekly routine is to attend text study on Tuesday afternoons. It’s truly a blessing to have that time to gather with clergy friends and colleagues, whether virtually or in person, time to check in with each other and to dig into the readings for the week. And if you’re a preacher, it’s really great to have other preachers to trade ideas with, especially when you’re feeling stumped about what to preach on a particular set of texts.
This has been one of those weeks for me. In fairness, the readings for today do have a lot of really great stuff in them. We have this theme of feasting and celebration that starts in our first reading from Isaiah and goes all the way through all four of our texts. In Isaiah, God sets an extravagant mountaintop feast with rich foods and fine wines. All people from all over the globe are invited to attend, especially the poor and the suffering, and God promises to destroy “the shroud that is cast over all peoples” and “swallow up death forever.”
In our well-known psalm – Psalm 23 – God sets a table for the psalmist in the midst of his enemies with a cup overflowing with goodness. And in his letter to the Philippians, Paul is so much in the party mood that he says it twice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
And of course, in our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus tells a parable that takes place – where else? – at a wedding banquet! In his story, this king is so determined to have this big party that even when the original guests turn down the invitation, he sends his servants out into the street to invite literally anyone else they can find. Like in Isaiah, everybody is invited to this banquet!
It’s all kinds of goodness and celebration in these readings. But, still, as I confessed to my colleagues on Tuesday, I’ve been struggling a little to engage with these texts this week. It’s hard to preach about all this feasting and celebration seven months into a global pandemic – because, honestly, I don’t feel all that much like feasting or celebrating. What I feel is tired. I feel tired and worn out and worried and sad. I’m tired of being constantly on guard against this virus. And my heart breaks for all the people I care about who have been hit hard by this illness. Somedays it just kind of feels like everything is falling apart and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. And I can imagine that these are feelings that sound pretty familiar to a lot of you.
We are currently living through a long and banquet-less season. We miss getting to gather and celebrate together the way we did before. And I think that this dynamic makes some of the stranger parts of our gospel reading sound even more strange than they normally would. In particular, who are these people who don’t want to go to this party?? It’s been ages since we got to have parties. Who gets a royal invitation from a frickin’ king to come to a big, lavish, wedding banquet, and is just like, “Yeah… pass.” Like, what is your life??
We talked about this quite a bit at text study as well: who would turn down an invitation to this party? And that includes the guy who gets kicked out at the end. It would have been commonplace in that time period for a host to provide for all of his guests’ needs – even clothes if they needed them. So it seriously makes you wonder: who is the schmuck who turns down the chance to wear some royal wedding robes and party with rich people??
But so many people in this story find an excuse not to come be part of this banquet. Many of them are just too busy with work at their farms and their businesses. Some of them are aggressively not interested. And for others, we don’t know. Maybe it just didn’t seem like the right time to have a celebration.
Whatever the case, the conversation about this gospel text left me with a question that I have been pondering all week: Is it possible in my own life that there are invitations to banquet that I am somehow choosing to miss out on? Am I letting my preoccupation with work and weariness get in the way of accepting invitations that God might be sending?
Because something else I’ve come to notice in these texts is that God doesn’t wait for it to be a good time to get the celebration started. The feast in Isaiah comes on the heels of ruin and storms and distress and poverty. When Paul writes about rejoicing and peace that passes all understanding in his letter to the Philippians, he’s actually addressing the people fighting in the Philippian community. And even the table that God prepares for the psalmist in Psalm 23 is set in the midst of his struggle with his enemies. The truth is, with God, we come to this feast through the valley of the shadow of death. We come to this feast with the tears still fresh on our faces for God to wipe away.
So, given all this, it probably shouldn’t be that surprising to me that the one story these texts kept bringing back to my mind this week is the story of my grandfather’s death. My grandpa George died back in 2012 and it was a pretty devastating loss for my family. He was the family patriarch and a pillar of our congregation and our community. He and my grandma had helped raise my brother and sister and me after our mom died, so losing Grandpa was a lot like losing a parent.
His death came kind of unexpectedly. He had gone into the hospital for gall bladder surgery – and the surgery itself actually went off without a hitch. But, for some reason, Grandpa just never woke up. Nearly my whole family and I – Dad, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles – spent days in the hospital just waiting and praying. When they eventually took Grandpa off life support, we spent the whole night camped out on the floor of the hospital waiting room, taking turns sleeping and just waiting. It was one of the longest nights of my life.
But even in the midst of that grief and agonized waiting, there were moments of beauty and abundance. Because we spent that whole time together reminiscing and telling stories. I heard stories about Grandpa that I’d heard a hundred times that were still just as funny – like the many approaches he’d taken to trying to get my brother to cut his hair. And I heard stories about my grandpa that I’d never heard before – like, I knew that my grandpa and his siblings knew sign language, because their father, my great-grandpa, was deaf – but I’d had no idea how many times they’d gotten in trouble in school for using sign language to cheat on tests! (Hefners are an ornery bunch, what can I say?)
At the end of the night, when morning finally came, Grandpa had been off the ventilator for over twelve hours, and we convinced Grandma to come with us across the street to get some breakfast. We all needed a break and to get some food. And it almost felt like Grandpa knew that. Because he waited until we’d all had our breakfast and came back to the hospital. And it was only a little while later, with all of us gathered around him, and Grandpa was gone.
Even in the midst of grief and uncertainty and loss, God laid out a holy banquet of love and invited us all to come to the table.
When we read through texts like the ones we read today – especially this passage from Isaiah and Psalm 23 – I feel like we are always reading them through the lens of “someday”: Someday we will all sit down to this heavenly banquet together – someday, when the kingdom comes. Someday God will wipe the tears from our faces and anoint our heads and make our cups overflow. Someday. And it is true that that the “someday” of God’s kingdom is the hope and the longing with which we live.
But there are also foretastes of that feast to be had in the here and now. God invites us to the banquet table in ways both great and small, even as we find ourselves in the midst of anxiety and grief and loss – even as we are prevented from gathering to feast at this table. God isn’t waiting for the time to be right, or for the world to be better. God is already setting the table and sending out the invitations.
I’ve been wondering about what those invitations might look like in my life ever since that conversation on Tuesday. And I’ve realized that at least one of those invitations to feast is with the people I read these texts with each week! Even though this is such a hard and stressful time to be a pastor (or, really, to be doing anything), I have found so much support and joy and life in this group of friends. And I feel so grateful and so blessed to have them.
And so I want to leave you all with the question that I have been wrestling with all week: Where in your life might God be inviting you to the feast right now; and what’s keeping you from accepting that invitation? You might still feel too busy, or too sad, or just plain too tired for feasting, but still God says, “Come.” Come and find the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Come and take your place at the table.