October 11, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Banquet in Jail"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
For my sermon today, I would like to share with you a story that I have adapted from a book by Chris Hoke, who served as a chaplain in a men’s prison. The book is titled Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.
On the day when Richard was born, someone called the cops on him. As soon as his 15-year-old mother had finished giving birth, she slipped out of the hospital and left him there. When the nurse saw the squirming infant, she picked up the phone and called the police.
Richard could remember sitting in court when the state tried to force his mother to claim him. Many children suffer through watching their parents fight custody battles. Seated on a wooden bench, his small feet not yet reaching the floor, Richard looked on as representatives of the state fought with his mother for the opposite reason: neither party wanted him.
So, years later, Richard was almost delighted when a helicopter and multiple squad cars chased him at high speed: the thrill of so many people sparing no cost to get their hands on him. Richard had been burglarizing a house when the police spotted him, and the hunt began. He managed to prolong this pursuit for three days, disappearing each evening into the home of friends who were willing to help him hide.
I met Richard in jail, where I was leading a Bible study. He liked the stories in which Jesus walked among the kinds of characters he could relate to: thieves, prostitutes, untouchables who had to announce their presence when entering a neighborhood. Jesus enjoyed them, it seemed. He spoke of a kingdom where they belonged.
One Sunday afternoon the door to the multipurpose room clanged open and more than twenty men filed in. They greeted me one by one, shaking my hand, and taking a seat in the small circle. Richard stood by the door with his arms crossed, pleased, as the last straggler hurried in.
“I brought the whole upper tier for you, chaplain. Except one guy who wouldn’t come out of his cell. Don’t worry, though, I’ll kick his butt later.”
I told him that wasn’t necessary.
As the Bible study began, a man named Lorenzo read the parable where Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet. When the original guests refused to come, the king told his servants to invite anyone they could find.
Hearing this, Richard sprang into action. He stood up and preached, “Those other fools missed their chance, so the king is like, Go out into the streets, tell all the people like us”—his inked fingers swept over the whole room at this—“to come to the party!”
The other men were not as excited as Richard; but he was intent on sharing his newfound enthusiasm.
“I’m not making this up,” he said. “It’s written right here ‘And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all they found, both bad and good.’ The roads? That’s the streets, dawg. And who do you find in the streets? People like us. We know where all the bad people are at! So, we gotta be the ones to go and invite them, right? And just like it says here, the wedding hall was filled with guests!”
Richard sat down with a loud, exhausted sigh, as if he’d just finished his appointed role and could now enjoy the party. I hoped our reading could end right there, where Richard had brought us: with the hall happily filled with guests. We didn’t have time to take on the difficult verses that followed.
Unfortunately, Lorenzo kept reading: “When the king came in, he saw a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
“Just what I thought!” Richard bellowed as he stood up and his chair grated across the floor behind him. The party was over. “Chaplain, what do you expect from people like us? We don’t have all the right clothes. We never look right! You should know that. Why do you even invite us to any of this if you’re just going to humiliate us and throw us out anyway?”
This is what I was trying to avoid. The guards were going to open the doors any second. Quickly, I tried to explain that some scholars say it was the custom in first-century Palestine for the host of a wedding to provide overgarments for the guests, right at the door, before they got into the banqueting hall. It’s like those little birthday hats that parents give to each kid who comes to the party. So, if this guy’s not wearing the robe, it’s not about poverty. He’s choosing not to wear it. It’s an insult to the host, in front of everyone in his own home.
But Richard wasn’t satisfied. “Even if they are given little birthday hats like you say, sorry—if you’re gonna invite people like us from the streets to your party or your church or your heaven or whatever, you should know we might not want to wear those little hats on our heads. We’re not going to all of a sudden play by all the rules like you do! So, you didn’t really want us at all!”
I didn’t know whether I wanted to stand with Richard or with the text. I loved them both. The unresolved question underneath all of this remained, and time was running out: Why would such a lavish host throw this guest out into the darkness?
“What if it’s the other way around, Richard?” I challenged. “You’re assuming the one not wearing the garment is one of the ‘bad’ people who were invited off the streets. But it doesn’t say that. What if it’s one of the ‘good’ people who feels uncomfortable sitting next to all these ‘bad’ folks pouring in from the streets? Someone who needs to set himself apart, not putting on the same robe as all the losers around the table?”
Richard’s shoulders relaxed, but I was just getting started.
“How do you think the host would feel, watching the guests he invited from the streets to share his joy, now feeling judged by this guy who’s totally killing the party?” I was suddenly choked with fury at this faceless character in the story who was making the other wedding guests as unsure of themselves as the inmates around the table before me.
I continued, almost shouting, “He’d throw that guy outside. He’s let him grumble all he wants—grind his teeth, even—until he was ready to come back in and share the joy of the king who wants everyone. Even people like you!”
The doors clanged open and the guards told the inmates to return to their cells. Richard was afraid to trust what I’d said. It seemed too good to be true.
“Back that up, chaplain,” he said on his way out the door with a finger pointed at me. “Send me a copy of whatever scholar you’re talking about. I want to see it in print!”
Christ Lutheran Community Church