Proper 23 Sermon Year A   "Responding to God's Invitation"

Sunday, October 9, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Is. 25:1-9; Ps. 23; Phil. 4:4-13; Math. 22:1-14

People often ask me what I like to be called - and let me clarify that they are asking this in reference to my being ordained, and not other things! "Do you like to be called Reverend, or Father, or Pastor?", they ask. "Well," I generally respond, " you may call anyone of those three titles, or you may just call me Peter, my Christian name. I'm fine with all of them. Just one you can't do. Don't ever call me late for a meal, because then you're really in trouble!"

Evidently this was not a requirement of the invited guests to the wedding feast in today's Gospel. Apparently they were not only willing to be called late for the meal - a sumptuous one at that - but they were willing to forgo the invitation all together. Now this is something that totally falls outside of the scope of my comprehension. This is just not my world. Not going to a meal? I don't know about you, but when the fatted calf is roasted with garlic and herbs, with everything accompanying it hot and ready to serve, with lovely aromas filling the air, and I'm invited to dine . . . I always show up fork and knife in hand and on time!

Nope. Don't ever call me late for a meal.

The turned down occasion is a royal wedding banquet. Such affairs lasted several days in the ancient world, and so the custom was for the host - in this case a king - to send out his slaves to let the invited guests know that the meal was ready, and the party ready to begin. "Come to the marriage feast," they proclaim.

But the invited guests make light of the kings invitation. They had better things to do. One went to tend to his farm. Another went to tend to his business. And interestingly enough, the rest of the invited guests abused and killed the king's messenger slaves.

So the king gets understandably angry. Who wouldn't be offended? And let's just say it takes chutzpah to turn down a kings invitation, never mind kill his staff. Kings don't like to be stood-up and they don't like to loose their staff. So there are repercussions. The king takes his vengeance out on those who decline his gracious invitation.

But, this still leaves him with a banquet hall filled with tables groaning under the weight of all this delicious food. Plus, someone has to be in attendance to celebrate the wedding of the bride and groom and to catch the bouquet and garter. So the king sends out his slaves again.

"The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy," the king tells them. "Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And so the servants went out into streets and gathered all who they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests."

What is going on here? What is Jesus telling us in this parable? Well, plenty, actually, so let's focus on just a couple aspects.

First of all, leading up to today's story, Jesus has been telling a number of parables where there is great resistence by certain people to hearing God's call to them: the tenants of the vineyard who will not share the harvest; the son who says yes, I'll work harvesting the grapes to his father, but then doesn't go; a man forgiven an enormous debt by his Lord, but who then refuses to do likewise to a man who owed him pocket change; and the laborers who worked the fields and at the end of the day received the agreed upon wages, but who then became infuriated when those laborers who worked less than them also received the same wage.

Each of these parables speaks to the fact that God's Kingdom ways are not our ways. But God requires us to learn and emulate his ways, if we are going to participate in that Kingdom. And in today's gospel Jesus sum totals that message. If we refuse to accept the message of God's Messiah - who is the bearer of the invitation telling us that the wedding banquet is ready - we do so at our own peril.

Second: Those who put their own concerns first, above the concerns of God will finally be rejected. Preoccupation with the material things of life can make people deaf to hearing the invitation of Christ. In the parable one man went to his farm, another to his business. They went to effectively administer the business of everyday life, and they were most likely good at it. But it prevented them from hearing the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. It is all too easy for a person to get so caught up in the things of time, that they forgets the things that are important for eternity. Those who put their own concerns first will finally be rejected. People with ears to hear: Listen!

Thirdly. Those who God uses to celebrate the marriage and enjoy the banquet are often the most unlikely candidates for service in God's Kingdom. Remember that the kings servants were sent out into the streets to gather up as many people as they found both good and bad. And they came. We can only begin to imagine the assortment of people - those rejected, despised, and considered unclean by the prevailing culture - that the servants rounded up to eat the sumptuous food and dance the hora at the kings banquet. What we do know is that the wedding hall was filled with guests and it was a great party! Those who rejected the initial invitation were probably relieved to know that they avoided such a messy social gathering. So would many folks today. But the point is that the despised and rejected folks heard and responded to God's invitation, and in the end it was THEY that got to party with God. And isn't that the goal?

Finally. It is the job of the king to issue the invitations, not us. We, as God's servants, are only to gather up all the people and bring them in. Period. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding the guest list for the banquet, we will not sit and feast ourselves. As long as we believe that we have the right to decide who is sinful and who is not, who is worthy and who is not, who should pay what for sins and how much, there will be no place for us. That is for God alone to decide. The only thing we are to do is answer God's invitation and respond to it.

James Tramel is a 37 seven year old inmate in the California State prison system in Solano, having served 19 years, of a fifteen to life sentence for second degree murder. Tramel was convicted in 1986. He was present when another inmate David Kurtzman stabbed a man to death in a Santa Barbara park. Tramel was 17 at the time of the murder, and was attending Northwestern Preparatory School and had an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The murder happened when Tramel, Kurtzman and some other students set out to confront some gang members who allegedly attacked a friend of theirs. The young men did not encounter the gang in the park, but instead saw a man, Michael Stephenson, with whom they spoke with briefly. Tramel states that he turned his back on Kurtzman and Stephenson, and then heard a sound that made him turn back around. As he did so he saw Kurtzman stabbing Stephenson.

Tramel has stated that he is ashamed for not helping Stephenson and for not calling the police. "Having reflected on this crime for more than half my life, I am intimately aware of my guilt," Tramel writes. "Every day I suffer remorse for my crime. To my perpetual regret, nothing will reverse that horrible day in 1985."

On June 18th of this year, Tramel was ordained a priest by Bishop William Swing of California. He is the first person ordained to the Episcopal priesthood while incarcerated. "I think, for the men, [in the prison] it is a very tangible sign of hope," Tramel said in a telephone interview from the prison. "That one of their own could become a priest says to them that God is for them too."

Several years ago Tramel began an Episcopal congregation at the prison, which started with a group of inmates saying prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the congregation grew, and chaplains began visiting to conduct full communion services. The congregation is small. There are about 42 communicants, and between 15 and 20 show up on any given Sunday night for Eucharist.

Tramel says he is awed and grateful to have been ordained. He said he experienced what he thinks many new priests do the first time he presided at the altar in the prison's chapel.

"You realize that it was exactly where God was calling you to and it fits," he said.

He sees his work as a priest is about, "being a person who proclaims God's love and as being a person who proclaims the availability of God's reconciliation." Jesus' message and the church's mission of reconciling people with God and each other are "desperately needed" in prison, Tramel said. "It's a message that the larger world is hungry for as well. ‘

Tramel was granted parole in late October, 2004, and was due to be released in March of this year, in time to serve as deacon at the Easter Vigil service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Instead the Governor of California reversed the State Board of Prison Terms' decision on Good Friday.

It would be "completely impractical" to be bitter about the governor's decision, Tramel said. "Being bitter would drive me to a place of being completely self-destructive. I wouldn't be able to help myself or others."

"No matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world, God loves you and is calling you," he explained. "No matter where you are in your life, no matter where you are in the world, you can serve God if you'll answer [his invitation] and respond to it."

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