The text we heard today from Isaiah is one of my favorites. The text is commonly read at funerals because the text depicts the sumptuous heavenly feast: a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The vivid, lavish image of the heavenly banquet is enough to calm our anxieties about our loved ones, but is also a comfort to us as we ponder our own mortality, and the feast that awaits us with our God. Of course, feasts are a part of our faith vernacular from our Jewish roots.[i] When we receive communion, we talk about the meal as being a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. For many of us, not receiving communion these last seven months have been particularly difficult because the act of feasting on Christ’s body and blood is a weekly ritual that offers us promise, encouragement, and joy.
But as I read our others texts today, I began to realize that perhaps our rosy image of the heavenly banquet is not quite complete. In our beloved twenty-third Psalm today, one also read at funerals, there is a tiny unsettling line in an otherwise soothing psalm. The psalm says, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,” or in our the much more familiar King James Version, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Somehow that sumptuous feast becomes a little less satisfying knowing we have to share the feast with those who trouble us. I can think of a lot of people right now that I have no desire to feast with in the life to come.
And we cannot forget the wedding feast in our lesson from Matthew today. As much as we like the allegory of all being welcomed at the king’s feast, where both “good and bad”[ii] are welcomed at God’s table, we are totally thrown by the king’s rejection of the man without proper clothing. Our immediate reaction is condemnation: surely if the king, if God, is inviting all in, something as superficial as what we wear should not lead to being cast out. I mean, this is Hickory Neck after all – where bowties and jeans are equally welcome! But before we get too bent out of shape, we need to realize Matthew is not talking about a literal wedding robe. Matthew is talking about wearing the “baptismal garment of Christ, clothing oneself with the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience of one who belongs in the kingdom.”[iii] You see, although the welcome is broad, as Thomas Long explains, “being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live…there should be a sense of awe and responsiveness about belonging to the church, belonging to the community of Christ, being a child of the kingdom of heaven.”[iv]
As a priest within the Episcopal Church, I talk to newcomers of all kinds of backgrounds. The most common question I get from this varied group is, “How do I become a member of the church?” This is a reasonable question, and in other traditions the answers are very simple. But the Episcopal Church has a terrible track record with this sort of thing. Technically, membership in our church means attending church at least three times a year. Yep. That is the only definition we have in writing. I would argue our denominational lack of clarity around membership leads to a lack of investment and true belonging. In a desire to make everyone feel welcome or create a rosy sense of belonging, we water down what being a person of faith really is. In fact, Long argues, “to come into the church in response to the gracious, altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not conform one’s life to that mercy is to demonstrate spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and happy hour in a bus station bar.”[v]
Now I know that sounds harsh, much like Matthew’s story sounds harsh. But as I have been thinking about the rosy feast of Isaiah this week, I realized I needed the feast of the twenty-third Psalm and Matthew too. I need to remember that not only am I, in all my imperfections welcomed to the table, so are my enemies. And not only are God’s arms widely open to me, God also expects something of me – for my life to have some recognizable response to the grace of God, for others to know we are Christians by our love, by our wedding garments of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
That is why at Hickory Neck, we try to be a bit clearer about membership – or more aptly, about discipleship. Our newcomers learn quickly that being here means a few things: being a member at Hickory Neck means coming to worship, to the feast, regularly enough to be fed and shaped in the life of faith; participating in formation and outreach to continue to grow, learn, and serve; to support the mission of the church with our time, our talent, and our treasure. We do all of this because the welcome we receive here at Hickory Neck is not hollow – the sense of belonging we feel here is not simply for stuffing ourselves. That is why our stewardship team invited us this month into a reflection about faith-filled generosity – not inviting us to give financially just because we should. We are invited to financial generosity toward Hickory Neck because we have been generously, unconditionally welcomed to the feast, and we want to embrace the garment of Christ as a response to that generosity. This week, as you reflect on the commitment cards and time and talent forms you received by mail, I invite you to reflect on your own experiences with the feast of God – the times when this table has been a lifeline, when Christ’s welcome has been a salve, and when the garment of Christ has been an honor rather than a burden. I look forward to hearing your stories of faith-filled generosity at the feast this week! Amen.
[i] Susan Grove Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 167.
[ii] Matthew 22.10
[iii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 247.
[iv] Long, 247.
[v] Long, 248.