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.

Marriage, Marriage Equality, Orientation, Privilege, The Inner Landscape, Weddings

Privilege

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Dewey Beach, DE – May, 2014

I’ve been to Rehoboth Beach twice this year, each time to officiate at a wedding.

Dewey Beach was the site for a rehearsal dinner  for the first couple. It was a beautiful Friday evening, the first weekend in May, cool enough that we all appreciated the bonfire. There were some other people on the beach as the evening unfolded, but our party of several dozen mostly had the beach to ourselves. The two brides felt safe in expressing their affection for one another, and when my wife arrived, I greeted her with love and with no fear of reprisal.

There was a moment when some young adults walked by, mid-bonfire, figured out it was a wedding-related event, and looked a bit surprised to hear there were two brides, but they were two people, and we were forty, and frankly, they were intoxicated, and they wandered off then wandered back and finally yelled, as they went on their way, “Congratulations!”

The wedding took place in a Presbyterian church, just a few weeks before a judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favor of marriage equality, and six weeks or so before the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly voted in favor of an Authoritative Interpretation allowing pastors in states where equal marriage is legal to perform marriage ceremonies. The AI granted freedom of conscience for off-campus weddings and opened the conversation with lay leadership, where desired, about weddings on church property. But none of that had happened when I put on my robe and stole to join my friends in marriage, standing in another pastor’s church, doing something he could do legally but not ecclesiastically.

I e-mailed him a scan of the officiant’s copy of the marriage license, for his records, for his protection.

The second wedding actually took place on the beach. Teenage bystanders ogled the small party gathered, but a group of mostly lesbians can offer a fearsome gaze in response, and the ceremony went on untroubled.

Where the river meets the sea, Bethany Beach, after the ceremony.
With my wife, where the river meets the sea, Bethany Beach, after the ceremony.

When a couple has been together 17 years (or 30 as was the case for another couple whose ceremony I officiated this summer), I want to take account of the fact that while something new is finally happening, their commitment to each other has been longstanding and is not to be discounted simply because they knew it mattered before state or church acknowledged it. Some reuse the rings already given as a sign of commitment. Some think that seems strange, and so I wrap my stole around their clasped hands and pray over the rings they have long worn. There is no right or wrong way, little precedent, only an attempt to bring together strands of church and state and love and long-held truth. I’m the privileged one, witnessing holy moments and having the power to sign a piece of paper that adds another layer of relationship, one so deeply desired yet commonplace.

I took a long time to be similarly convinced of my own truth, so long that my earliest reflections on marriage as privilege were written from deep in the closet, as a self-identified ally with a history as a self-proclaimed “lesbian wannabe,” a person who despite her own questions about her orientation walked right into a clerk’s office and got a license. All I needed was a guy and forty bucks.

The vista at Rehoboth Beach on a beautiful summer day.
The vista at Rehoboth Beach on a beautiful summer day.

The day after the wedding, KZJ, Mr. Dimples and I went to the beach for the few hours we could manage and still get home for an interview I had that night. It’s been two years since we spent an extended period of time at a beach, that time on a vacation with extended family at a beach much less crowded. I’m not sure we reckoned our privilege then any more than I did as a young woman who did the expected thing. We waded through the umbrellas already covering the beach at 10 a.m. and found a place to put down the tourist-priced, bright-colored towels we bought that morning, decorated with flip-flops and shells and beach umbrellas. Sometimes it’s a privilege to be among the masses, two moms and a boy eager to feel the ocean again. We didn’t have much elbow room, but the ocean lay before us, waves breaking, the air all at once salty and sweet.

Marriage, Prayers for Pastors, Weddings

Kinetic, connected (a prayer for pastors, after a wedding)

In their house,
on the wall,
danced the sculptures,
their soft whirrs and clicks
transfixing.

They don’t always
move the same way,
are smooth
but unpredictable.
The pieces begin
together,
born from the same
spring action,
and it reminded me
of marriage,
when it works well,
the graceful separations
and returning to rest.

It’s what we want
in church,
I think,
to play our part
while others play theirs,
to participate
in the unexpected,
and open out
to the world,
but come together
again in the end.

Lord, keep us kinetic
and connected.
Give us rest,
but always
send us out
again
to describe
the arc
of your love.

Prayers for Pastors, Weddings

Awe-filled responsibilities (a prayer for pastors in the wedding season)

Holy One,

We have some awe-filled responsibilities.
We break the bread and offer the cup.
We baptize little ones
(we are your little ones),
and not so little,
all the ones who come to pledge their hearts in Jesus’ name.
To pledge their hearts…
It is awe-full
to stand with a couple, ready to make their vows,
In front of you
and their witnesses.
Awe-full.
They promise things
no one could fulfill
without your help,
and how can we know?
How can we know
how well they will hold
to their pledges and vows?
Karla signs the licenseWe place them in your care.
We trust you with their futures.
We give their hearts,
the emotions we hold for them,
to you.
You will be there,
better or worse,
richer or poorer,
In days of health and
when it all goes to hell.
You go to hell with us,
Faithful Parent,
Living Lord,
You go wherever we go,
to love and to cherish,
never to part.
We hope to do the same. We want; oh,we want!
It isn’t easy, so we ask,
please, please bless them.
And bless us, too, we pray. Amen.
Marriage, Personal History, Weddings

Wedding Nightmare

This Saturday will be my first wedding since I started at NYCC last September, and my first since my marriage ended, and I’ll admit that preparing for it has been challenging. After all, who am I to say whether a couple ought to get married or what they need to know to make it work? But then I remind myself that history is full of people who never married yet provided the same sort of counseling from a spiritual point of view, and I remember that in neither case did I actually get that, because the clergy involved were a relative (first time) and a friend (second time), neither of whom seemed to feel it necessary.

Clearly, it was.

Furthermore, every sanctuary is different and thus while the ceremony remains essentially the same, the logistics vary. Tonight I went out to the church and two deacons (thanks R and P!) helped rearrange the furniture, so to speak, because while standing where the Communion table usually sits worked for a 6’3″ man pastor, being at the low end of a sloping sanctuary isn’t such a great spot for this 5′ tall preacher, and besides, the couple heard we had a carpeted set of stairs that could come in, and that’s what they wanted, so I suddenly have a different sanctuary than usual.

I feel discombobulated.

When I last officiated at a wedding, I didn’t know all the things that led to the decision to end my marriage, but I did know things were badly, sorely amiss. Writing words to speak to a young couple came painfully, for I suspected that the vows I had spoken did not mean to my spouse what they meant to me, and I was lifting up the promises they would make, focusing on the value of those promises when times are challenging.

I still believe that.

Last night I dreamt that the wedding took place in an auditorium, and I was standing on the steps, rather than the stage, trying to conduct the ceremony, and no one would listen to me. There was ongoing revelry better suited to a fraternity party than a religious ceremony, a regular bacchanal. I woke with a gasp, needing a drink of water.

My words went unheard.

Friday Five, Weddings

Royal Wedding Friday Five

As posted by yours truly at RevGalBlogPals:

Admittedly the media attention directed at a certain wedding is a tad askew given the challenges our world faces, yet for some it is an appreciated diversion. I’m at kathrynzj’s house, along with her mom and sister, for a pre-dawn pajama party complete with scones! And while the DVR will cover us if we oversleep, the participants in the actual wedding had better have someone to get them to the church on time.

With kathrynzj’s help, here is a Royal Wedding Friday Five:
1) Will you be watching? If so, is this your first royal wedding?

We are watching! I’ve watched several, beginning with Princess Anne’s. My mother was just the right age to be obsessed with then-Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, and she passed the fascination along to me. So I’ve watched them all. Diana was just my age, and I had the pleasure of being in England that summer and watching the wedding in a room packed with Cambridge students as well as my American classmates.

2) The bride has chosen as her wedding cake a fruitcake. Where do you stand on this pastry?

I would never, ever choose a fruitcake for anything other than a doorstop.

3) The dress code for royal weddings has not seen the same sad decline as that for most other weddings. If you could design your own royal wedding hat, what color would it be and what special decoration would it feature?

I am picturing a lilac ensemble with a charming matching hat of not imposing size, with a spray of flowers. I’m old-fashioned.

4) Any chance the Archbishop of Canterbury is using a Sustainable Sermon (tip of the mitre to the Vicar of Hogsmeade)? What would you tell the couple were you offering the homily?

My bad, the Bishop of London preached! It did, however, sound like a sermon that one might use on any occasion. I liked the quote from Catherine of Siena.

5) Believe it or not, kathrynzj is getting up early mostly to see the wedding dress. By the time this post is up, the world will have seen it. Did you like it?

I loved it!!! Perhaps now we will see a return to sleeves on wedding dresses, which would be a kindess to virtually all brides, in my humble opinion.

Love, Marriage, Weddings

Things Go Awry

UnionChurch_wedding  (My last act as Interim Associate Pastor at Y1P is to officiate at a wedding, off-campus, this afternoon. I must admit that I usually lean heavily on old homilies…but this time I wrote something from scratch.)

Things go awry.

You can almost rely on it. Life is going along smoothly, as
beautiful as this gorgeous day, this lovely bride, this kind-hearted groom.
That’s what we want for you, the smooth ride, the good weather, the supportive
friends, the expansive blessings of providence showered upon you.

But the vows you will make to one another are for other
times.

They are moments away, these holy and heavy words that will
bind you, making two people into one marriage.

The apostle Paul wrote to young communities of faith, not to
young couples, but he expressed himself in ways that we bring to weddings
because the words are not romantic but holistic. They prepare us for the times
when things are less fabulous, more earthly, not-so-divine and fully human.

River We read the words from scripture and exchange the historic
vows knowing that we are not alone in finding commitment challenging, knowing
that like so many other people all we can do is the best we can do, knowing
that we are standing on the shore of the great, glad river of God’s Love, a
river we will need to visit to draw a cup of kindness, a bucket of compassion,
a pool full of forgiveness when the moment calls for it.

You’ll need them when things go awry, these thoughtfully
crafted and poetically expressed promises, more grittily summed up this way.
You promise to be there for each other not just through highs, but through
lows, not only when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. You promise to forgive each
other not just for locking the keys in the car or forgetting an anniversary,
but for being fallible and broken human beings who will surely make worse
mistakes and say the wrong things and turn out to be somewhat different from the
people you believe yourselves to be today.

Wedding-gift You will receive many gifts, beautiful things you will appreciate and for which you will write many thank you notes, no doubt! But the real treasures are the promises you give each other today, word gems
that give you a place to look for help and encouragement no matter what the
future brings. It’s my prayer that you will remember these things when you need
them, and be blessed by having said them to each other.