Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sermon October 12, 2014

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Proper 23

Matthew 22:1-24

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

      Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  So many times when we read Bible passages we have to exert ourselves in order to understand what is being said.  After all, the cultural references of an agrarian society of two thousand years ago are very different from ours today.  Things such as sheaves of grain, vineyards, and the ways of sheep and shepherds aren’t part of everyday reality for most of us.  But the context of today’s passage isn’t as great a stretch for us.  Even if wedding customs have changed a great deal over two millennia, we can appreciate that a wedding banquet is an important event indeed, particularly a wedding banquet given by a king for his son.
            We can appreciate the trouble someone goes to when holding a wedding reception.  When our daughter was married almost four years ago, my husband and I didn’t kill any oxen or fat calves for the dinner. But like most of you who have planned a wedding for a daughter, we went to considerable expense and trouble to make sure our guests would be well fed.  We hired a hall and caterers and arranged for beautiful flowers and an enormous and elaborate cake.  With our daughter and prospective son-in-law, we spent a great deal of time putting together a guest list and making suitable seating arrangements.  All of us would have been devastated if too many reply cards came back marked “will not attend,” or worse, if we received no reply at all.
            So now envision the king in Jesus’ parable.  It is most certainly rude to blow off a wedding invitation from a friend or a relative.  It’s absolutely unthinkable to blow off a wedding invitation from a king.  Worse, some of the invited guests mistreated or even killed the bearers of the king’s invitations.  Kings in those days could do things most of them could never do today. This king retaliated by killing the scorners in return.  This affair is far more serious than  a breach of etiquette, however unfortunate such a breach might be. I think it might also be a good thing to remember that this is a parable and not an account of an actual wedding  banquet.
            We are meant to understand the characters in this parable to have cosmic significance.  As you might imagine, the king represents God.  The son represents Jesus.  The first invited guests are intended to be seen as the nation of Israel. The first slaves who were killed by them are intended to stand for the Hebrew prophets.  The group of slaves sent out to the highways and byways to find substitute guests are the later missionaries.  Finally, the new wedding guests, the ones who actually show up, are meant to be seen as the people who will come to follow Jesus.
            At this point I feel compelled to say a word about what is NOT going on here.  This story should most definitely not be understood as a condemnation of Israel.  Scholars assert that this parable doesn’t excuse an attitude of smugness by Christian readers.  Scholars likewise maintain that the parable is most definitely NOT espousing anti-Judaism.  Jesus makes very clear that the guests who actually attend the wedding banquet are not the “good” guests, as opposed to the “bad” ones who turned down the king’s invitation.  When the last group of slaves went out to the streets to find guests, Jesus tells us quite clearly that they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”
            Badness, however one defines it, isn’t a reason for exclusion from the party.  Yet we have the curious instance of the man whom the king orders to be thrown out.  The king notices that one man isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  When the king asks the man why he isn’t wearing a wedding robe, the man offers no answer.  The king tells his attendants “to bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Now if you’ve ever shown up for a party and found you weren’t wearing quite the right outfit—and many of us have--you might be able to identify with the man without the wedding robe.
            The unnamed man has committed an offense, but one that isn’t a mere dress code violation.  The wedding robe isn’t just a wedding robe, just like the king in this parable isn’t just a king, but a symbol for God.  The lack of a wedding robe is more than the simple failure to prepare properly to attend a wedding, though it is indeed that too.  There is an association in scripture that links a change of clothing with conversion. Galatians 3:27 contains such a reference.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
            Also, the original disciples hearing this parable would have been familiar with the Jewish concept of kavanah.  Kavanah refers to the mindset required for the performing of Jewish rituals or for the praying of Jewish prayers.  Kavanah is the appropriate turning of the heart and mind and soul to God, a prerequisite for worship.  Just as an aside, I have to wonder if it was intentional on the part of the novelist Jan Karon that the name of the beloved priest in her Mitford series is Timothy Kavanagh.  Father Tim most certainly has his heart and mind and soul turned to God most of the time. 
            So it’s not enough, the parable tells us, just to show up at the feast.  It’s not enough just to show up at synagogue services or for church services.  We need to come properly dressed, metaphorically speaking, with our hearts and minds and souls disposed to worship God. We understand that.  However, that might still leave you feeling just a bit awkward, because not everyone comes to church exactly in a spirit of kavanah.  We often arrive rushed, stressed, and with our mind on the argument we just had with our spouse or with the teenager who refused to get up this morning.  It happens, even to the clergy sometimes.  We’re living life, not a parable.
            What I think would be a good thing for us to do at this point is to go back a few lines earlier in the parable and consider something else that the story might be saying to us as a church.  Remember that the slaves went out and “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”  Does this look to you like the mission of our church? By our church I mean both the Episcopal Church in general and St. John’s in particular.  I can think of many strategies for church growth that involve recruiting young families into congregations.  Nobody disputes that recruiting young families is a good thing.  It is indeed a good and joyful thing to be a community that forms young souls in the faith. 
But have you often—or ever, for that matter—heard of strategies to fill our pews with other people whom life has already formed in ways that seem less than desirable?  Do we go out and seek homeless people, people who’ve served time in prison, or people who are suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol?  We have programs for these populations. They all fall under the heading of “outreach.”  The word “out” speaks volumes about our approach. I invite you to join me in thinking about just whom we invite IN to our Eucharistic feast every Sunday.  The king of the parable had his slaves gather ALL they found, the good AND the bad, to the wedding banquet.  We might consider how we might do the same.
We also might want to consider whose church this is.  St. John’s isn’t our church.  St. John’s is God’s church.  Our weekly eucharist is God’s to share, not ours.  Every Sunday the King holds a wedding banquet for his son. All may attend, good and bad, however we define those terms.  There is no dress code, save that we be clothed in Christ.  And because we live in a real world and not in the parable, we might come late or grumpy or both.  The important thing is that we’ve come, come to the wedding banquet that we know as Eucharist.  Amen.