I never manuscript sermons. And those of you who know me are wondering what I'm smoking - especially since this one was finished on Thursday, no less. This one just sorta happened.
Most frequently, the homiletical moment is scribbled or typed on a half sheet of paper. And while the script may not be as filled in as this one is, the methodology to get there is the same.
I live with the text each week. At this point in my ministry, I have not found myself capable of going several weeks in advance on the readings. I'm not convinced, however, that's a bad thing.
The centrifuge out of which spins points of contact between the text and life is the time spent weekly with four other clergy friends. Lectionary/Covenant/Support - the two hours spent weekly with these folks help me contexualize the lectionary from the lives we're living as clergy, friends, and all the varied networks of contact we bring in the room with us. In one form or another (itineracy can take a toil on group dynamics, don't you know), this group has existed since 1990. Even after moving away from it myself in the late 90's, and having not found what I needed for support in Jackson, I drove weekly to Memphis to continue my place in it.
So, in addition to all my other ranting and ravings, I'll also use this medium to throw out the thoughts and questions that emerge in preparation for the preaching moment. Maybe it'll be a manuscript - but I doubt it. I offer it not as authoritative, but as one who believes the questions of the Gospel live among us to be asked together.
Whatever emerges, jump in, something you offer may show up from the Saint John's pulpit some Sunday morning!
Pentecost 21 - Matthew 22.1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’
Let’s take stock of where we are in Matthew’s Gospel
Jesus has entered Jerusalem -
He taught using a series of parables as teaching moments for all to hear, but they were aimed squarely at the religious leaders. The people functioned as "grand jury" and in the face of Jesus' teachings, the indictments were obvious. The perceived influence of the Divine has been laundered to yield unaccountable power for the few at the expense of the many.
So, we get . . .
The Laborers in the Vineyard.
The son who said "no" but went to work anyway, the son who said "yes" but didn't go at all.
The tenants who kill all who come to collect the profits for the landowner.
The progression in Matthew is growing to a crescendo and it is becoming clear -something has to give. And we know in the Gospel story what that "thing" is...that, having had enough, the religious authorities conspire for Jesus' arrest, but even that is not done with any integrity.
Knowing that they've been exposed by his teaching, that their perversion of power and authority has been spoken aloud, and fearful that the politics of the moment would do them in, they coax the response they seek from their occupiers.
It’s the slash and burn politics of 1st century Jerusalem.
A coalition between Jerusalem and Rome, strange bedfellows, indeed.
The occupying nation-state will do the dirty work of the religious authorities. Sound familiar? Apparently, we've still not learned well the lessons of how we wrap ourselves in our religiosity while we crush dissent.
Maybe a quick press conference in which we really answer no questions but act like we're in control will help.
But lest we think we are buffered by historical distance, or are protected by our enlightened, post-modern superiority, WATCH OUT!...the universality of the Gospel confronts us as well.
The temptation to leave such hard teachings trapped in time perpetuates the very biases and prejudices we are called to shirk. Anti-semitism is birthed from the failure to recognize that Jesus' hard teachings and death were not only about the point in time he walked the earth confronting self-righteousness, unfaithfulness, and abuses of power at the expense of the voiceless.
These parables "cast alongside of our lives” expose our desire to claim residence in the Realm of God, but not adorn ourselves with the manifold expressions of faith that give witness that such an invitation matters.
We're invited to the Party that is the Kingdom of Heaven, where love and justice prevail, but are we willing to clothe ourselves in the apparel befitting such an occasion?
And if we are unwilling to yield the false sense of power and control over which we rule our little micro-kingdoms, then the Gospel makes us squirm today, and we are left ultimately with the feeling, like those religious folks so long ago, that something's got to give.
But the parables, if they do nothing else, remind us that we are not the only ones who would say "something's got to give."
God is saying it, too.
II. PARABLES AS FAMILIAR FORM
Jesus weaves this familiar story into the consciousness of his hearers. As it was with most of what Jesus taught, it was hewn from the wellspring of wisdom that resided already in the domain of the people. Often it was the Hebrew Bible. Other times, still, it was the folklore of the time.
A man had two sons
A man planted a vineyard
And today, a King is throwing a wedding banquet.
Already, there are preconceived expectations about where this story should end up. The turn of the parable is inevitable in our hearing of it. You know that the hearers are going to get "caught" in an unexpected turn. Are you ready for the parable to turn on you?
III. WHAT IS IN THIS PARABLE FOR US?
If the Kingdom of God is like a Party, why don't we start acting like it? Somewhere we've got this idea that Party and Piety are incongruent.
That's not what Jesus indicates.
Ever been to a great party? I mean a great party?
Aren't you “out of yourselves” in that moment? Pretense is gone, true joy and fellowship pervade every moment, and when it's time to leave it you wonder where the time went?
Would that more of our lives in community of the church mirror that spirit of togetherness and community to which the Gospel alludes.
Ah, yes, but then there's this. Ever receive an invitation to a party that you didn't want to go to? Be honest.
The thing about invitations. To some, they are wonderfully received gifts. To others, a flat out imposition.
Jesus tells of those first invited to the party...they wouldn't come. Too busy? An imposition? Didn't want to? Do you create an “excuse” for why you can’t come? Or, maybe it's that old "Brady Bunch" excuse, employing the words of Marcia, Marcia, Marica, that "something suddenly came up."
Who knows, but for this story - at the invitation, they were not willing.
BUT THE PARTY IS READY AND NO ONE IS HERE. Invite anyone, everyone. Notice that all are invited. Goodness and badness are no longer criteria for entrance - that you ARE is reason enough to receive an invitation.
That's how desperately gracious God is.
You are invited simply because you are, YOU!
God is gracious that way. God's character, often against our better judgment, is to allow entrance to those for whom we haven't the time of day, or whose lives, beliefs, politics grate on every fiber of our being. So, even if we rejoice at our invitation, we might think differently about it because of who else is invited.
I mean, really, do I want to be at a party with Pat Robertson? Jerry Falwell?
Do I want to be at a party with those who weaponize their religious zeal to exlude?
Do I want to be at a party with those who might welcome me, but not those I care about?
Do I want to be at a party with those who use God to justify war?
IV. AN INVITATION, ONCE RECEIVED AND ACCEPTED, CARRIES WITH IT THE RULES OF THE HOUSE
Admittedly, the end of this parable stuns us. And with Matthew, you've always got to cast someone into the outer darkness where there's all this weeping and teeth gnashing.
And over what? Somebody didn't have the right clothes on? Are you kidding me? C'mon, don't fixate on the garment. Consider what the garment means. You can't enter the party without honoring the expectations of the host. You can't enter Realm of God and keep the same mindset you had before.
David Buttrick says, "If you come into the Kingdom of God, do you think you can wear the same old prejudice you wear now?...You will want to match God's own unlimited generosity with an extravagant love for others, particularly those in need. Anything less would be out of place in the Kingdom."
Contrary to our “once saved, always saved” friends, wherein you announce that as long as you believe, you’ll be fine, our spiritual forebear, John Wesley, talked about “falling from grace.” And to fall from grace is to fail in responding to grace’s impact on your life. While grace is free, it carries a requisite level of responsibility that shows by your inward and outward expression that grace received is motivating the servant actions of your heart. Anything other than that is to wear the wrong apparel to the party.
And if the Kingdom of God is a party, then we need to hear that some of the attire we wear is not welcomed, will not be admitted, and will be cast out if you try to bring it in.
Take our varied responses, or lack thereof, to the disaster on the Gulf Coast. Two distinct quotes typify what garment needs to be shed for it will not be admitted, and what needs to be put on:
"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Rep. Richard Baker (R. La.) reported by Wall Street Journal
"It's a war of all against all--'you're on your own--in the center of an American empire. But now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it is, do not confuse charity with justice. I'm not asking for a revolution, I am asking for reform." Cornel West
There is wonderful good news here. You're invited. And to be at this party, you have a choice in how to respond. With God's lavish grace, why wouldn't we want to put on appropriate party apparel?
Take off the blind pursuit of power.
Disrobe yourself of the prejudices and biases that bind you.
Robe yourself in Christ.
Put on Love,
pursuit of justice,
the willingness to give yourself away, which becomes an extension of the invitation you've received.
The invitation to the party is given, but the decision of what to wear must come from you.
In the Name of the Holy and Triune God. Amen.