The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 11, 2020
One week in 1958, the Bishop of Texas got three phone calls. I don’t know if he was surprised or not, but he should have been expecting them. Because that week in 1958, the Bishop and the Board of Trustees of St. Stephen’s Episcopal high school in Austin, Texas voted to integrate their student body. Prior to that, the school had been reserved for white students only. Like I said, the Bishop should have been expecting a few angry phone calls.
And as Bishop Hines, who was bishop then, remembers it, those three phone calls cost something. Actually, they cost quite a bit. In the course of those three phone calls, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas lost $750,000 in donations. Roughly adjusted for inflation, let’s round that to $1.3 million in 2020. The gospel costs something.
But Bishop Hines was not one to be bullied. Once Bishop Hines had made up his mind, once he knew what the Spirit was calling him to do, there was no person and no person’s money that could stop him. That’s why his biography is titled, “Granite on Fire.” And even though he lost those donors, he was never ashamed of what he did for the gospel. Though it cost him. Because the gospel costs something.
In this time of division and partisanship, the Church seems to be up against the ropes. It is no secret that the Episcopal Church, along with all sorts of other churches and institutions, is losing members and money. And the temptation is there. The temptation to negotiate, to mitigate the cost, to compromise, to answer those phone calls without such steely resolve. You and I will always be tempted to treat the Church as a private club that suits the wishes of its members rather than the body of Christ seeking after the truth. And once we do that, once we make that compromise, once we squeeze our hands too tight around the Church it will all slip through our fingers.
Because the fact of the matter is that God is going to throw a wedding banquet. This is one of those constant refrains we’ve been hearing throughout the Gospel of Matthew. God is going to make something grow, so Jesus talks about throwing seeds every which way. God has planted a vineyard and God is determined to get fruit out of it, whether the vineyard is run by these tenants or those tenants. And here, God is going to throw a wedding banquet. It’s just going to happen. Sure, the people who were on the first guest list turn away. They come up with excuses. They’ve made the phone call and told the king that they would rather be somewhere else. But you know what? That’s fine. Because there are lots more people out there who would love to be at the party. And God will find them and bring them in. Whatever the cost may be.
Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I wonder if have hedged our bets and kept something back. Sometimes I wonder, if rather than proclaiming and living this radical, unbounded love of God in Jesus Christ we have settled for some shadow of that truth. We have been scared of what the truth might mean. For too long we’ve thought that the Church was dying because the doors to the wedding banquet weren’t closed tight enough to keep some folks in. But perhaps the Church is dying because the doors weren’t open wide enough to let everybody in. Perhaps we’ve been scared of what it will cost us.
And so what about that man, what about that man who is dragged into the wedding banquet but is thrown out for wearing the wrong clothes? If Jesus really has a vision for this expansive, generous, wide open Kingdom of God, why is this guy chucked out for wearing black shoes with a brown belt? Well, it turns out, he’s holding something back, too. The king would’ve given out wedding robes to his guests, that was the custom. By not wearing it, the man is saying that he’s come just for the free food but isn’t really down with the whole wedding thing. In another way, this man is also afraid of the cost. He’s afraid of putting on the new clothes, the new clothes of love and humility and grace that is required by the gospel. This is the image of a person who refuses the cost of discipleship. This man is more than happy to get all the freebies but isn’t ready to change his clothes, to change his behaviors, to change his life. This is a man who wishes to bring with him all the hatred, the ugliness, the violence, and the self-centeredness of the world into the wedding banquet. Sure, the doors to the Kingdom of God are wide open. But you have got to drop everything else and put on the new clothes of Christ. See, either you look at it the gospel costs you something – it costs to keep the doors wide open and it costs us to stay in.
So that is exactly where the Church is today. On one hand we must always keep the proverbial doors wide open for anybody and everybody to come in. That is the radical, generous nature of God’s Kingdom. This is what makes the wedding banquet so very different from the other banquets the world offers. Anybody, and we mean anybody, is welcome in. And on the other hand, we must always say that life inside the Kingdom, those who live inside the banquet hall, must look different from everybody else outside of it. We must wear a different sort of clothes than the rest of the world. This is also what makes us different from the world, because we must live differently from the world. We must live lives of compassion, and generosity, and grace, and kindness. Open doors and new clothes.
And of course, during this pledge campaign, I would be remiss if I didn’t connect this to the business of the church. Yes, it costs real money to keep the real and proverbial doors of the church open. Just a quick look through any church budget and you’ll see these costs – electricity, water, the cleaning crew, the mortgage, taxes. In order for there to be a church as we know it, we must bear these costs. And on the other hand, it costs real money to pay for those things that help us change out of our clothes of the world and into our new clothes in Christ. We pay for mission trips, and youth groups, and bible studies, and outreach project, a school partnership – even things like small groups and ministries all have real world costs.
What I’m getting at is that this parable about the wedding banquet and its connection to life in the church is not just a thought exercise. Like Bishop Hines would have told us sixty years ago, preaching the gospel and building up the Kingdom of God will cost us something.
But of the course, the real cost would be if we gave up. Imagine with me a world without the Church. Imagine our community if there was no place in which all people are welcome. Imagine the world without a place that opens its doors to anybody. Imagine a community that had no people in it transformed by Christ. Imagine the meanness and the terror of a world in which no people committed themselves to love. That would be an unbearable world, and I thank God for this alternative vision of the wedding banquet. And that is why I am happy to take on the cost of the Church. Compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord, compared to the value of a community shaped by the cross of love; well, that burden is easy, and that yoke is light.