(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.
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.
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.