Sunday, October 12, 2008

No Empty Seats

United Lutheran Church, Elbow Lake, MN
50th Anniversary--October 12, 2008
Matthew 22:1-14
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Lambeau Field in the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a holy place of sorts. Since 1960 every seat in Lambeau Field has been sold out for every Green Bay Packer home football game. Some 74,000 persons are on the waiting list for Green Bay Packer season tickets. The policy at Lambeau Field is: no empty seats!

So imagine a man who had waited a lifetime to go to a Packers home game, and when he finally got to do so (courtesy of a season-ticket-holder who couldn’t attend one Sunday afternoon), this man observed that the seat just in front of him was empty.

How could this be—an empty seat in Lambeau Field! At half-time the man finally worked up the gumption to ask the fellow sitting right next to the empty seat if he knew who normally sat there.

“Oh, that,” the man replied, “that was my late wife’s seat.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the newcomer mumbled, feeling like a heel.

But still it bugged him….to have a single empty seat in Lambeau Field! It bugged him so badly that he spoke to the widower once again. “I know that you might want to remember your departed wife by leaving her seat vacant, but couldn’t you honor her memory just as well by inviting one of your dear friends to occupy that seat?”

“I suppose I could,” the widower replied, “but right now all my closest friends are still at my wife’s funeral.”

“No empty seats,” is the motto at Lambeau Field, and it clearly was the policy of the king in this parable.

His son, the crown prince, was getting married. A week’s worth of wedding festivities had been planned, and the invitation list had been painstakingly put together. Invitees were given advance notice of the days they should set aside.

And yet, when the hour of the wedding feast came, when the festivities were about to begin, all the invited ones turned out to be no-shows. Here it was a royal wedding, no less—people should have been falling all over each other to get in, but instead they all offered lame excuses when summoned to the wedding hall. Some were even downright offended by the intrusion of the king’s messengers, and a few of those messengers were-shockingly!—killed.

So the wedding feast was ready, the food was piping hot, and no one was showing up. The king was infuriated. After avenging the murderers of his messengers, he sent out his servants one more time, gathering up anyone and everyone they could find—“the good and the bad,” our text says.

And this time all the guests came—all the last minute invitees showed up, and the banquet hall was filled.

“No empty seats” was the king’s obsession and his goal, and he reached that goal—by hook or by crook.

And that tells us something about God, dear friends. God wants there to be “no empty seats” in God’s glorious kingdom. God is fiercely determined to fill every available space with his people, his chosen ones. God wants an SRO—standing room only—crowd around his throne.

And how about us? How do we feel about empty seats, say, in this sanctuary? Across the 270 congregations of our Northwestern Minnesota Synod only about 26% of our members are in worship each week. Imagine that: a church that seats 100 folks, drawing only 26 persons—that’s a lot of empty seats that the janitor needs to keep dusting off!

And worse than those empty seats is our complacency, our lackadaisicalness about them. We 21st century Lutherans have “made peace” with all the empty seats, we have acquiesced to that, we have accepted it much too glibly.

Think of it this way: what if we imagined each worship service as a sumptuous banquet, a veritable feast? What if (following the trajectory of this parable) we pictured Sunday morning worship as our own Old Country Buffet time? How would we feel if we regularly prepared food for 100 and 74 of them failed to show up? That’s a lot of Tupperware containers of leftovers we’d need to squeeze into the fridge! Wouldn’t it kill us to let all that good food go to waste?

And that, dear friends, is what’s happening all the time. For 50 years God has been serving up, each week in this congregation, a feast of mercy and grace and lovingkindness in Jesus Christ our Lord. God has been feeding you and those who came before you here at United Lutheran. The food that is served up here is nourishing, piping hot and delectable. It restores us and give us life.

But on a typical Sunday here in northwestern Minnesota, when the weekly banquet is ready—74% of us Lutherans are AWOL. 74% of us prefer starvation.

What if, dear friends, we rested a little less easily with that? What if we determined not to have anyone miss that meal? How might that fire our imaginations and move us out, like the king’s royal messengers, to invite and plead and cajole hungry people into eating the bread of life?

What if, dear sisters and brothers here at United Lutheran, what if you moved into the next 50 years of your congregation’s life, simply telling yourselves that you will no longer tolerate empty seats in God’s house? What if that even became part of your mission statement: No more empty seats?

But there’s another shorter parable tacked on to the parable of the wedding feast here in Matthew 22, a codicil of sorts, that at first seems awfully puzzling.

As the king surveys his filled-to-the-gills banquet hall, he spots a man not properly attired. Here’s what I think happened. The king invited all the wedding guests, made it possible for them to come, and even fitted each of them out with an appropriate wedding robe, as they entered the banqueting hall. It didn’t matter how dirty or filthy or tattered they were—the king would cover over all of that with a beautiful wedding robe, at no extra charge!

But one man brazenly snuck in in his old duds, the rags in which he felt most comfortable. He was making a “fashion statement” of sorts. It was his way of saying, in terms of his manner of dress, “take me just the way I am or take me not at all.”

And the king, to our great surprise, bounced the guy out into the street!

What’s going on here? Does this king want “no empty seats,” or not? Why would we invite this guy, only to evict him from the party? Was the king, after throwing open the doors to everyone, suddenly getting snooty?

Not at all! The king wanted to have mercy, wanted to share his generosity with all, right down to supplying them with a garment suitable for the occasion.

God accepts you and me, just the way we are—this is true. But God never leaves us “just the way we are.” God welcomes us to the banquet, and we can expect that that banquet will transform us, will make us new.

The man who turned up his nose at the offer of a free-rent wedding robe was, in effect, saying: I choose to enter and remain in my rags, my sin, my waywardness. And the king said: “Nothing doing. I want all of you—lock, stock and barrel. I want you and I intend to make of you a new creature.”

God wants no empty seats in God’s kingdom. God wants to fill all the seats in the banqueting hall. God welcomes you and me to the wedding feast—which is to say, God welcomes us to the transforming, renewing power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

We will be changed by that. We will not be content to remain in our dirty old rags. We will long to wear the robe of righteousness, wrapped around us in our baptism. We will be glad—we will be overjoyed to wear the king’s gracious robe that covers over all our sinful brokenness and makes us clean and bright and new in God’s sight.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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