(PROPER 23 A Revised)

12 October 2008

John W. Sewell

Saint John’s

Memphis, Tennessee

In his book, Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Beuchner says that if you can’t take a joke you’ll never understand the Gospel. There is a profound difference between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy the hero pits himself against the gods and is destroyed by the process.  Tragedy is concerned with struggles of power.  Comedy, on the other hand, is about ambiguity, and the transformation of roles. We think it is one way and it turns out another. Tragedy invariably ends in death; comedy ends in marriage – a crisscrossing of boundaries and limits. One is serious and the other is playful.

The readings today shape up to be a tragic-comedy in two acts.  The setting of the production is feasting and partying.

The prologue to the Play begins in the Exodus. The Children of Israel are encamped below the Mountain of the Lord. Moses is on the Mountain with God. And back down at the camp things have gotten out of hand.  As someone has said it was much easier to get the Children of Israel of Egypt than it was to get the Egypt out of the Children of Israel.  No sooner has Moses disappeared into the smoke on the mountaintop than the complaining began and Aaron, Moses’ little and only borderline competent brother decided to appeal to the people’s lowest common denominator.  From the gold jewelry of the people, Aaron cast an image of a calf, one of the Egyptian gods, and proclaimed a feast in its honor. They rose early in the morning and had a combination tailgate, camp meeting – barbeque and goat roast. They sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance and we’re not talking square dancing either.

The Lord God did not take this well and was ready to smite the Children of Israel asunder, but Moses talked God down reminding him of how things would look to the Egyptians if he brought then children of Israel out of Egypt only to smite them in the wilderness. So God sent Moses back down the mountain to straighten them out. And he did.

This is a comedy with tragic overtones or maybe it is a tragedy with comic elements. A golden calf is a poor substitute for the God of hosts.  The feast in the wilderness is the antithesis of the banquet in the Gospel serving as a mirror to the Good News.

Now on to Act I

Jesus picks up the setting of a party in the Gospel reading today.  “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared,” says Jesus, “to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  In the ancient world one received an invitation to a feast by messenger.  Then messengers then delivered a second message that the feast will soon begin.  The King sent servants with the message,

“The ox has become barbecue. The fatted calf is now filet mignon.  Countless cases of Dom Perignon are chilled.  The tables are groaning with everything from Buluga caviar and Italian truffles all the way to MOON PIES and R.O.C. cola.  There is some of whatever you want to warp your beak around.  (It’s enough to drive the editors of Gourmet Magazine wild.)  Come to the Wedding banquet,” they said.

BUT — the guests made light of it … One went to his farm – One went to his business, while the rest seized the servants mistreated some and killed others.

As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “The King’s reaction is like a scene out of Rambo or The Terminator: Houses exploding in flame.  These are the beautiful people from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” They are the very folk we admire. They have everything but lack the one thing essential, namely, trust — faith, the only thing from God’s point of view required.”

This is the tragedy.  They have trusted themselves when that is the only thing that will not work. They are like the long list of winners who lose: the Pharisees, the Priests, the rich young ruler, they are you and me, they are all of us … who live the twin mistaken notions:

1. Our good works will get us into the marriage feast.


2.                That God’s nature will absolve us from having to sit through it if we happen to have other plans.


As the guests learn they are dead wrong. Salvation is not by works and the heavenly banquet is not optional. We are saved only by accepting the invitation to a party already in progress and God has paid the price with his own death.

He counts only two things: GRACE and FAITH.  —— Nothing else matters!


The King says to his faithful butler, “the wedding is ready, but those invited are not worthy (by their unfaith.) Go into the streets and invite those you find to the wedding feast.  Out all the uniformed flunkies went. They went out and gathered all they found: good and bad.  Note he does not invite the good and snub the bad he invited ALL.

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  He simply invites us to trust his invitation.

So the poor, the prostitutes, bag ladies, men with missing front teeth and the smell of Thunderbird on their breath, all the ner-do-wells completely overlooked by the beautiful and important are all home free.  [See the comedy breaking out?]   So the hall is filled with guests.


Now, let me admit that what I am about to say is conjecture. Just go with me, here, … you can’t hold it against someone if they are shanghaied to a party and you don’t like what they wearing. So I think … the “sudden guests” are provided wedding clothes, suitable clothes — Bill Blass – Valentino — all sorts of designer rags in exchange for their filthy ones. As the King comes by to mingle with the guests he spies a man without a wedding suit.  He apparently came in since he was forced but he will not put on his suit. The King said to the man without a wedding suit.  Friend (or as Ann Landers used to say, Buster) how did you get in here without a wedding garment? The man was speechless!  And then they threw him out. Even in a comedy some will always insist on tragedy. You might make some people show up, but you really can’t make them like it, after all, can you?

What is this tragic-comedy telling us? Invitation is the principle judgment in this parable. Notice, “Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in.   Hell may be an option; but if it is, it is only one that we chose after we had already been invited to the heavenly dance. The first Guests are worthy.  They just wouldn’t come. Their unacceptance was the issue. The Replacement guests become guests by accepting the invitation. The man without a garment wouldn’t accept or even speak and out he goes.  The King insists on dragging everybody and their brothers to the party.  Everyone is a member of the wedding party and is only shown the door AFTER they were invited in.

GRACE is the only basis of entrance into the Kingdom …Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus EXCEPT our unwillingness to accept his INVITATION. The difference between the blessed and the cursed in one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is a done deal for both groups before either does anything about it.


Here in the epilogue, [following my device to the end] in the serial reading from Philippians, Paul writes from the perspective of one who has said yes to the heavenly banquet.  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … I have learned to be content with whatever I have. [That sounds un-American]  I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”



·        We begin to relax in the comic “joke” that what we have always been told about who is in and who is out just isn’t so.

·        The tragedy is if we continue to believe the advance publicity of the tragedy that the world is rehearsing.

Let’s relax; this show isn’t a tragedy after all.

Yes, Jesus does die, really dead, on the cross. It’s not stage make-up and fake blood. He’s dead, really dead.  That would be a tragedy, if that were the end of the production.  But it isn’t.  God raised Jesus from the dead. That same resurrection is ours, if we’ll just take it.

It is essential that we learn this and explain to our children from the beginning that the tragedy the world is staging is not our story. This is particularly true in these days. We cannot place our ultimate trust in the market or in any human economy.  We are the people of the resurrection, who get the cosmic joke that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Our children and anyone need to be reminded, as do we, that life is rich, complicated and dangerous – but it need not end in tragedy.  Let’s teach each other to laugh and be playful for we are people of the heavenly dance.

Therefore, above all things let us proclaim that things are not necessarily as they appear. Let us not be defined by circumstances we find ourselves in today. Today is not the end of the story. The story ends at party God is giving and all that is required is that we accept the invitation and show up.



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