The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      15th October 2017
Invitation and Refusal
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 22. 1 – 14

Isaiah 25. 1 - 9

What’s the best invitation you’ve received and had to turn down? What’s the one you would change your whole diary just to take up? How you decide in these circumstances what would constitute a better offer shows what your priorities are, where your treasure is. So how about being invited to a royal wedding? Perhaps no one in Jesus’s audience would ever get such a call. But they, like many today, would know how these things worked: that the ‘save the date’ was the invitation, and that they should be ready for the news that everything was now in place and they should come quickly. Why on earth would you turn down the final invitation when you knew how special the banquet, the occasion, would be?

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus, to be challenging, exaggerates for great effect. It’s a royal wedding! What’s so special about the farm or the business that it would take precedence over the celebration of a lifetime? Maybe there’s a clue in the reaction of some of the others: they don’t give an excuse but simply attack the messengers. They hold the King in contempt. The King aches to be generous, and meets only arrogance, apathy, self-obsession, and sheer self-centred ignorance. Jesus is clear that the invitation can be refused. That’s grace. But the consequences are great. The King is gracious, and powerful. This is a lion, not a moggy. 

Matthew’s parable owes much to the prophet Isaiah, and the image of the great banquet in today’s Old Testament reading. How much does God, the King, ache to welcome the poor, the needy, the drenched, the parched, the starved? How much does God ache to feed, to refresh, to shelter, to clothe, to heal, to mop up tears, to restore dignity and worth? And how powerful is this God, who can turn a walled city into a heap of stones, can put godly fear into the strongest of nations, can destroy even death? An invitation from such a God is not to be taken lightly. To respond is to be enfolded in love and restored to life. Those who say ‘Whatever’ and shrug it off just don’t get it. So they don’t get it. Their loss. 

Matthew shows us that our host’s aching to be graceful is not thwarted by refusal. The invitation just goes out to others. The least likely will end up sitting at the feast, because the host invites and invites and invites again. How could such a God do likewise? This is total commitment, and only total commitment in return will do it any justice at all. It doesn’t take much reflection to see this as God’s call to us to answer the invitation – yes -  and to extend that invitation to others. Many have seen in this parable a challenge to Jesus’s Jewish hearers, keen to ‘fence their table’, but at the same time unwilling to hear God’s call for themselves. The early church heard this as a call to welcome the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Freely you have received. Freely offer. Freely give.

We can hear it is a call to ensure that we have received the love of God – to accept the invitation - and to extend that not just to those we think will fit, but to all, and not to give up until all have been invited in a way which makes sense to them. There is much that is challenging here about the way we welcome to ensure that we are not just replicating ourselves, but genuinely making the love of God open to all. And there’s a challenge to do some inviting. We do have to do something, rather than just hoping that our reputation will do it for us, as if all we have to do is open our windows and let the smell of the banquet draw people in. Restaurateurs know that they have to do much more than that, and so do we. 

On Friday night, as the project to be a community sponsor for a refugee family was launched, we learnt much about putting heart and soul into invitation and inclusion. We learnt about how that would challenge and change us; that the commitment across race and culture would change everyone involved. If we are to be ‘a refuge for the poor, a refuge to the needy…, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat’, to quote Isaiah, then we must be as committed to that as God is committed to us. 

It's then that Matthew’s related parable about the wedding clothes hits home. The people who make no effort to act like they are at a party show their contempt just as much as those who can’t be bothered to come. God has committed love and healing and hope to us, and there is behaviour and belief which follows. It may be an exaggerated challenge, perhaps to the early church who decided that they were ‘in’ and didn’t need to do much about it. It’s certainly a challenge to me. Am I wearing the right clothes, doing the right things, offering the grace of God? Or am I sitting grumbling into my food about those who don’t darken our doors?

This is dedication season, and many of you will, I hope, have had a letter from me about financial commitment. I hope you’ll see that money is only a small part of the way we respond to the self-giving self-committing love of God. It’s often the hardest to sort out, because money has that power, but living a life in response to the complete offering of God to us is much more than that too. With a couple of clicks you can sort out your giving to Hampstead Parish Church for the year. Extending God’s life-giving love to the stranger and the refugee, to our next door neighbour and our best friend: that’s a life-long calling. 

There will be ways you can do this, party clothes to put on, to use the image. Sorting your giving  and putting your money in its place will be one. Committing to welcoming the refugee and sheltering the homeless will be another. Inviting someone to an event, to worship, to a concert or group. There’s a thought. It’s a royal wedding! How could they refuse? 

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