Friends, on this National Indigenous Day of Prayer, there are any number of stories I could tell about my six years in northern Saskatchewan, where I served a church on the Muskoday First Nation near Prince Albert.
But there’s a particularly special story for me that relates to our Gospel reading for today – a story about my invitation and welcome to the community.
As a white priest going to serve an Anglican church on a First Nations reservation, I was very nervous - I felt a tremendous weight of historical and colonial baggage pressing down on me. At the time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in the midst of its work of hearing the painful stories of residential school survivors – schools that were run by the Anglican Church among others. Given all of that, I thought: do they really want me here?
And yet, at my very first funeral, on the first night of waking, an elder stood up in the band hall and said to those gathered: ‘I’d like to introduce and welcome Chris Dow - the newest member of our community.’ I was blown away. And I should emphasize that I had only been there for a very short time and had done nothing to earn their favour. It was an invitation of sheer grace, a welcome of great love. And in that way, it illustrates our Gospel for today.
In this parable of the Great Banquet that Jesus tells, God the Father is the master who gave the great banquet and invited many; and Jesus is the servant whom He sends to say to those who had been invited: ‘Come, for all is now ready.’
It’s a summary of the entire Christian story which we’ve followed through the first half of the Church year from Advent to Pentecost. God so loved the world, that He sent His Son, His servant, to make ready the great heavenly feast.
The Bible says that all of human history is moving towards a great family reunion feast for the entire human family – all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues will be gathered together around God’s table as His royal guests in His eternal Kingdom. God’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled (Genesis 12:1-4): all the families of the earth will be blessed and united through His offspring, Jesus Christ, the King of the nations.
All the things that currently disfigure and divide the human family will be no more: the sin of racism, historical animosities, violence and Death itself – all these former things will have passed away. Jesus swallowed up Sin and Death by His own death on the cross; and He rose again and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us and all people at table in the Kingdom of God. And He will come again on the last day to usher in the new heaven and new earth and welcome us to that great homecoming banquet.
In the meantime, the Father has sent upon us the Holy Spirit of His Son, as a pledge or down-payment of that future reward, so that we can enter even now into the joy and heavenly hospitality that await us. And so, when we hear the words of the servant in today’s Gospel, ‘Come, for all is now ready,’ that means today. Behold, now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation. So friends, let us not receive the grace of God in vain. That is the point of today’s Gospel.
We have heard the invitation, we have received the invitation, but how will we reply? At the time for the banquet [the master] sent his servant to say to those who had been invited: ‘Come, for all is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.
What do their excuses have in common? They are all about family and worldly possessions; and our various excuses are no different. These are all good and noble things, but when they take the place of God in our lives, they cannot bear the weight we put on them. Only God is big enough to bear the full weight of our trust and expectation. All these other things in our lives must find their place in relation to God: as gifts we have received at His hands, as goods dependent upon a greater Good.
The focus of this parable may seem to be a warning against these various human excuses, and that’s true, but notice also the Master’s determination that there be guests to receive His blessing. Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. Jesus emphasizes God’s persistent desire for us to receive His hospitality - for our good is found not merely in our worldly pursuits, but in God.
The love of God in Jesus Christ demands a response from us. So our excuses are nothing less than refusals of God’s grace. God listens for the echo of His love poured out to come back to Him from our hearts.
In our second reading today, St. John tells us that without this love, we are as good as dead.
The whole of the Christian life is about the invitation to love. It’s about God’s love, which perfects and renews, refreshes and restores our broken lives - and our broken world, which as we’ve seen especially in recent weeks, is in desperate need of God’s love. Our world today is being torn apart by enmity and hatred – the very opposite of love.
And this morning, John issues a strong warning against this, doesn’t he? Anyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer.
Remember that our Lord Jesus Himself taught that murder included not only killing someone, but being angry with anyone, harboring resentment and prejudice against them, calling them a fool or any insult whatsoever, including, we might add, racial slurs.
Such hatred or anger in our hearts is death - and the assurance that we are headed for death. But on the other hand, having love in our hearts - and living out that love in deed and in truth - is the assurance that we are living in, and headed for, eternal life. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters.
Notice how John so faithfully passes on the teaching of our Lord. Jesus said, “By this all shall know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Our love for one another is both a sign to the world and an assurance to us of our salvation, and of God’s work in us. If we love each other, it is by God’s grace and influence.
So on the one hand, there is this anger and hatred and murder, and its end is death. On the other hand, there is this love and its end is life. So how then can we move from anger, bitterness, envy, grudges, hurt, hatred, and prejudice to this love which God commands and demands of us?
John says: By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us. It is by believing in Jesus Christ, who died for us, that we know and receive the love of God. Jesus’ life and death is the good news to be believed, but it is also the great invitation - and that demands a reply: Come. Love invites us to love. We must first know His love, receive His love, be filled with His love, that we may then love in return and reply and response. The love of God in Jesus Christ demands our answer. This is his commandment: that we should believe in the Name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.
That faith is the gift of God the Holy Spirit, and that love is the work of God the Holy Spirit in us. How shall we believe, and how shall we love? By the Spirit which He has given us.
By the way, speaking of the hard and sacrificial work of moving from bitterness to love, in my experience, the Indigenous peoples of this country are a remarkable example of this. Given their historical experience and the discrimination they continue to face today, they of all people have reason to be bitter – and yet in their grace and strength they display a remarkable forgiveness and hospitality.
So inspired by their example and that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, let us pray, then, that God would renew us in the gift of Himself, His Spirit, and fill our hearts, our homes, our lives and this world with His love. Amen.