Matthew 22:1-14, Sermons, Weddings

The Invitation

(A sermon for Pentecost 18A — October 12, 2014 — Matthew 22:1-14)

We purchased only one of these.
We purchased only one of these. (Image from tmz.com.)

I try to look away from the tabloid magazines in the grocery store checkout line, but the other day as we were standing and waiting, I said to Kathryn, “It looks like everybody is getting divorced.” “We don’t believe the Star,” she replied reassuringly after glancing at the cover. So I moved on, and did not take the time to worry about the end of marriages I honestly didn’t know had happened in the first place. I used to be someone who knew these things, but the celebrity marriage line of the popular culture train has long since left me behind.

Except of course for George Clooney. I’ve been a fan from way back, long before he was even on ER. His identity as an elusive bachelor with one early marriage in the dim past has been well-established. Rumors of relationships with models or “actresses” came to naught.

Then we saw the announcement:

“Internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin marries an actor (who once played a handyman on The Facts of Life).”

I’ll admit we bought the copy of People magazine with pictures of their Venice wedding on the cover. That’s Venice, Italy. (Show magazine.) Inside were descriptions of their clothes, pictures with their friends and family, and gorgeous shots of the gilded hall with 18th century frescoes where the ceremony took place. Everything was elegant, and one concludes, heartfelt, and the carefully chosen 100 guests spoke – on the record – of their affection for both the bride and the groom.

It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down that invitation.

Jesus tells a story of guests too busy to make themselves available for a royal wedding. You don’t have to be a scholar of Biblical languages to figure out what’s wrong with that opening scene, but the rest of the story tends to have preachers doing more homework on the text than usual. This story was written down long after Jesus died, and it needs some context not only for his time but for the church in Matthew’s time, at least 50 years later.

First, it’s a wedding. That part is simple. A wedding was a major event in a family and a community, something we still understand today. Everyone important to the bride and the groom would be included: relatives, neighbors and business connections, for starters.

Second, it’s a royal wedding. You wouldn’t want to miss it, not only because a wedding is a special occasion, but also because in that time, the favor of a king meant a lot for your family or your business. Anyone listening to this story would immediately understand the importance of attending the wedding; it required no further explanation.

The next part does. Why do all these people ignore the invite to what is certainly the party of the year, if not the party of a lifetime? It’s not only rude, it’s foolish. Proper guests are portrayed as refusing to come. Not only that, they seize, torture and murder the servants sent out to remind them of the party.

This is no straightforward metaphor. The kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws the best party ever to celebrate the marriage, the coming of age, of his son. He sends out the ones who serve him to remind the invited guests that the time has come. The servants specify what a fine party it is, and they offer the invitation again.

Then they are killed for their efforts.

This is not a lesson about manners, or even loving our neighbors. There is more mayhem to come. The king sends his troops out to destroy the ones who murdered his servants, to burn their city. Only then is the more general invitation offered.

Just as the tabloids are intended to shock us, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and dismay.

We move naturally to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death and destruction raining down suggests an apocalypse, an end of the world scenario, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the people in Matthew’s church. They were most likely Christians from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, which means away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem. Smart people had gotten away before the Roman army destroyed the Temple and laid waste to the population in the early 70s of that first century. The end was horrible.

Resettled, they continued to worship together as Jews, now in synagogues, but conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Differences you can manage in a large congregation feel unmanageable when you know the person sitting across from you thinks differently. Matthew’s gospel is full of negative references to the Jews, but we need to remember that the early Christians in Matthew’s community also claimed their Jewish heritage, believing that Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. The images of destruction here paint a picture of the violence familiar to them. They desperately wanted Jesus to come back again and usher in the future for which they hoped.

God is the king, and Jesus is the son, and the banquet is the table prepared for all of us, the realization of God’s dream for the world. The slaves sent out represent the many prophets who came to point to God’s dream and issue God’s invitation. Instead of getting ready for the banquet, the invited guests ignored it.

We would probably like to skip over verses 6 and 7, which some scholars believe were added later,[i] and move on to the next part of the story. That’s the good part. Now the king sends his servants out – whatever servants he has left – to invite everyone else they can find to the party. Imagine that the guests did not arrive at the gilded hall to celebrate with Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney. Imagine, seeing the room empty, the couple sent their managers and agents and personal assistants out into the city to invite the poor and the hungry and the badly-dressed and the socially unacceptable, “both good and bad,” as the gospel tells us, to come in and join them for (hold on, let me find it) “lemon risotto with lobster and Chianina beef with porcini mushrooms…paired with plenty of vino,” champagne and tequila.

We love that ending! It’s the big finish! The rich and powerful don’t know what they’re missing. The benevolent King and, in this case, Queen, share the love and the lobster with people who would ordinarily never see such glory or such generosity.

They “went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both Good and Bad – so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (Matthew 22:10, NRSV)

Fade out on the beautiful scene, on the musical clink of crystal glasses toasting the happy couple.

But wait. There is a terrible epilogue to come, for apparently these hastily rounded up guests with no social standing all appeared dressed in the right garment for the wedding, all except one. When the King arrives and sees him, things don’t go well.

Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”[ii]

Why is the King picking on That Guy? Why is The Clooney all of a sudden expecting a last minute invitee to have an engraved invitation in his back pocket?

Suddenly That Guy is tied up and tossed into the canals of Venice, which believe me, are not very clean. I’ve been there. I’ve wandered through little museums full of gorgeous paintings hung too close together for hundreds of years. I’ve wound my way through the beautiful Basilica of Saint Mark and marveled at every facet of the  workmanship. I’ve wandered the Piazza outside and been just nobody, not even particularly interesting to the pigeons.

And here’s the thing about fabulous parties and powerful kings and gorgeous architecture and valuable paintings. They are only a sign of what’s to come, in this story and in all our faith stories. Jesus didn’t tell a story about a wedding to get us to improve our etiquette. Jesus told a story about a wedding to get us thinking about how we respond to our invitation from God – him. The gospel writer, living in a time when people dearly wished Jesus would return and restore their community, raised the dramatic tension, to motivate his people and his church to be ready.

A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”[iii]

The truth is that it’s not enough to simply accept the hospitality. A responsibility comes with it. It wasn’t enough just to enter the synagogue. It’s not enough just to come to church. God invites us to put on a new identity as God’s beloved children. That has implications not only for our thoughts or our feelings but for our actions and for our lives.

We’re not living for some mythic future. Today is the day to start behaving like we know where we are. The invitation is here, and the garment of a new identity is waiting. When we say yes, we begin a new life, marked by God’s generosity and Christ’s glory. What in heaven are we waiting for?

Let’s go to the banquet.

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*********

[i] Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 246.

[ii] Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Also Long, p. 247.

[iii] Long, p. 247.

Matthew 22:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Proper 23A, Sermons

Occupy the Banquet Hall

(A sermon for Proper 23A — October 9, 2011 — Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14)

One day last month, my older son, Edward, called from New York City and asked me what “Black Tie Optional” meant. He was facing his first wedding invitation as an adult, and he wanted to both dress right and not spend money on the wrong thing. It’s been a long time since I read Emily Post – and really, I did read it once, cover to cover, and an old-fashioned edition of it to boot.  But in this situation, it seemed wiser to consult the Internets, to find out what contemporary etiquette had to say about Black Tie Optional.  I was happy to find emilypost.com, where I learned that for a man, Black Tie Optional is

A bespoke tuxedo

Either a tuxedo (see ‘Black Tie’ above) or
Dark suit, white shirt, and conservative tie
dressy leather shoes and dark dress socks

We discussed his available footwear and socks. Edward wondered whether a grey suit would do, and I suggested it ought to be very dark grey, and then he went into the H&M store to fend for himself.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding, where two college friends in their mid-twenties are the first in their group to get married, and no one really knows how to dress or what kind of present to buy or whether they can bring a date, and if the couple is Jewish, and the friends mostly aren’t, well, it’s easy to be worried that you’re the one who will be turned away at the door.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding, where the people you might expect to come have blown off the invitation, and others have actually violently refused it, and people who never should have been included are invited to occupy the banquet hall. Still, for the originally unexpected guests who finally arrive, there is a dress code: White Robe NOT Optional. There are lots of things in this parable that we might struggle with, but the worst is the last, the idea that this inviting king would take someone who happened to not be wearing the right robe and have that person bound and cast into the outer darkness. We tend to jump toward an allegorical interpretation of parables; the king must equal God, that’s our starting place, so why is God discriminating against someone who wasn’t invited in the first place and didn’t have the right clothing?

We are right with the king until verse 11, aren’t we? We get the idea of inviting in the less important people. We may even identify with them (even if we really aren’t among them). But those last few verses are harsh, and uncomfortable, and don’t match up with what we want to think about God. The end of the parable doesn’t match up with the message we teach about Jesus.

But in Matthew’s gospel, and particularly as we’re getting closer to the end of the story, as we’re living through Holy Week with Jesus and he is anticipating his arrest and death, we get these stories in which the people who don’t get the message end up in a bad place. In verse 13, the king says, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ In other words, if you don’t have the robe on, you’re going to be isolated and lonely and have no power to fix it. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” That verse, all by itself, can be used as the foundation for a theology that says God only chooses a few. But doesn’t that seem contrary to the rest of the parable?

The messages are mixed.

It’s always easier to get the lesson across when you stay on message.

Have you been following Occupy Wall Street? I first heard about it through friend’s postings on Facebook.  The national media didn’t pay much attention to the protestors in New York, and supporters, or at least sympathetic observers, on the Internet wanted to change that. The other day Bill Nemitz wrote a column for the Press Herald in which he interviewed an Occupy Maine protestor and a Tea Party organizer as well. Nemitz made a point of looking for the similarities between the two movements, and diagnosed both as representing dissatisfaction with the status quo. The other thing that’s true for both is that they are passionate.

Occupy Wall Street, 10/7/11

But there’s a major difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, and I’m not just talking about their differing political philosophies. The Tea Party stays pretty well on message. The Occupy movement, whether it’s Wall Street or Boston or right here in Portland, is more diffuse. The Tea Party is clear in wanting less government spending and interference in people’s lives. The Occupy movement is a classic, liberal “Big Tent” movement, which means they include anyone who wants to come no matter what his or her pet issue might be: the war, banks, the Federal Reserve, health care, 9/11…you name it. Everyone gets a say, with the result that no one can say what exactly it’s about, and for the people in the movement, that’s okay. But that means they can’t be “on message,” because they don’t have one easily stated message on which to stay. And it makes them seem a little eccentric. Power lies in the easily repeated sound bite. All they have is “We are the 99%,” and that takes some explaining.

For this preacher, that’s both frustrating, and familiar.

Now you may think of yourself politically as conservative or moderate or liberal. I would identify myself politically as progressive. But theologically, our capital C Congregational heritage is liberal.  It’s liberal because we allow each other to think differently about things even when that makes us uncomfortable. So we’re really more like the Occupy movement than we’ll ever be like the Tea Party.

Let that sink in for a moment – and remember it’s a metaphor and not a political statement.

As a UCC church, we don’t tell people what to do or what to think. We encourage rather than insisting. We actively resist anything that labels or categorizes. We welcome everyone, wherever they are, whoever they are, however they might dress, whatever they might think. We may hope that being part of this community will lead people to live as Paul recommended for the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8, NRSV)

That’s a pretty diffuse message compared to the one some churches might give, where the rules are clear and some people are in and others are out, unless they’re willing to come in and not be out, if you know what I mean. And while I sometimes wish I could stand here and deliver easy answers, on the whole I’m glad to be occupied by my questions about Jesus, and to wrestle with stories like this one told in the last intense days he spent teaching his friends and followers in Jerusalem.

Occupy Maine at Lincoln Park, Portland

There was nothing eccentric about Occupy Jerusalem. The Roman officials had an agreement with the religious leaders. When the people gathered from all around to observe Passover, when the city was crowded with all kinds of potential revolutionaries, there was no difference between religious disobedience and civil disobedience.  The place we inhabit makes it hard for us to understand; in Portland, because the city doesn’t want to encourage people to sleep in Monument Square at night, they offered the protestors Lincoln Park as a campground. The police here are not using pepper spray.

They are not carrying prisoners off to be tried Friday morning and crucified Friday afternoon.

It’s not a coincidence that the parable contains rejection and violence. Jesus experienced rejection and violence, even death, when he came to occupy the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet laid to celebrate a wedding, and if high society, and the Executive Branch and the mainstream media and Wall Street won’t come, the invitations will still be sent, until the people come and occupy the banquet hall.

Because you don’t need a tux to dance at a wedding.

Edward checked with the bride and groom ahead of time, even before he called me, and they insisted he did not need to wear a tuxedo.  He ended up buying a handsome, dark grey suit to wear to his friends’ wedding, and from the pictures I’ve seen – once again on Facebook – he fit in reasonably well even with his slightly better-dressed friends. But suppose he had been invited at the last minute, and the only thing he had to wear was a pair of well-worn chinos and a slightly frayed blue button-down shirt?

We worry about the end of the story because it seems wrong that a person who wasn’t originally invited, a person whose social class meant he was in the last group basically rounded up to fill out the party, would be punished just because he didn’t have a white robe. What we don’t know, because of the distance of time and culture, is that the people listening then would have known that the white robe was waiting for you when you got to the banquet. It would have been as easy to get as the bulletins we hand out every Sunday.

If he really wanted to occupy the banquet hall, the man only needed to put on the robe offered.

We’re all invited, and it’s a come-as-you-are party. All we have to do is come through the door and put on the robe of love Christ offers. He’s waiting for us to occupy the banquet hall. Amen.