This is a sermon on Matthew 22:1-14, and the rest of Proper 23 for Year A. I encourage you to read all of the texts Track 2, starting with Isaiah and going onward.
It’s a sermon on what happens when we meet a God who doesn’t make sense–or makes sense in a pretty horrible way–and how we might address the stories in the Bible that make us go, wait–WHUT.
… So there’s this king.
And this king has thrown a wedding banquet for his son, but those invited have killed the messengers, ignored the invitations, and gone about their business—so the king has punished them by blotting out their city and burning it to the ground.
And the King, is like, “well—since I’ve killed everyone I originally wanted to invite, you, servants, go out into the streets and get everybody, good and bad, and bring them into the feast.”
So that’s what happens—but the King, presumably hanging out on his own and not at the party, comes in and begins to talk to the guests.
And he sees some average Joe who just got pulled up off the streets, and he isn’t wearing a wedding robe.
Now, we don’t know if wedding robes were handed out at big royal weddings like this—maybe this is a refusal to accept a gift, or maybe it is really refusal to show up with the necessary clothing, or maybe he just got yanked out of his beggars booth and doesn’t have one. Either way, this guy has shown up to the party, but for whatever reason isn’t clothed accurately, so the king binds him hand and foot and throws him into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sounds like a totally reasonable response from our God, right?
There’s no denying that this is an ugly parable, and that the God presented here is a bit—scary.
At face value, this parable is an argument against hypocrisy.
Throughout the New Testament, conversion to the new faith is likened to putting on new clothes or a new garment. So, what Jesus is saying here is that–that just showing up to the faith isn’t enough—that one must actually practice loving neighbor as self, that one must actually practice gratitude, generosity, and justice.
While many of us watch the world around us, we may hope that there is a God out there who will not suffer hypocrites. When we see people around us coopting the word Christian into something that means hate and elitism, or using the word Christian to get ‘in the door’ socially, but then using that social power to do cruel damage to the poor, the sick, and the earth–In times like these, it may indeed be hopeful to be reminded that we have a God who will not be mocked like that.
But, that image of God is incomplete.
And that’s a good thing too, because, at least for me—this breaks down when I turn the metaphor on myself. I am certainly far from a perfect Christian, and I try my best to be a good Christian, but who knows how far I’m getting. None of us are able to be perfect people.
A God who is going to throw us into the outer darkness for failing to get it together is not really a God that gives me hope for my own chances—and certainly isn’t the kind of God that I want caring for the imperfect people that I love.
So while I find a kind of hope in the God who will not be mocked, it is an incomplete hope, because carried to its conclusion, it breaks down. Salvation exists for a reason, and that is because none of us are really capable of fully dressing ourselves in Christ.
We need the God in Isaiah, who prepares an incredible feast for us, removes the shroud over all the peoples, and wipes away tears from all faces. We need the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death—the God who’s peace surpasses all understanding, and guards our hearts and our minds—knowing that we can’t do it on our own.
We need that God, too.
In Godly Play, we introduce the parables to the children by showing them that there is always another side. Each piece of felt is turned over, played with. Before the story starts, the children are invited to re-imagine what the felt could represent. The black blobs of dangerous places in the parable of the good shepherd could potentially be licorice jelly beans, or a piece of the clear night sky.
So, in the spirit of Godly Play, I think we ought to flip this parable onto its other side.
Perhaps the king is not only an allegory for God, but in another light, is an allegory for us.
Christians have prepared a great celebration and banquet for the whole world in the church, but have we celebrated with those we’ve invited, or have we criticized their clothing? Have we flattened the cities of those who would not come to our party? Have we thrown those who don’t conform into the outer darkness?
Have we focused on other’s failure and our own outrage instead of the actual celebration at hand?
What goes entirely forgotten here in this parable is the celebration itself—the joy, and the revelry—the wedding—and perhaps that ought to speak to us as much as the warning against hypocrisy.
In his letter, Paul urges the Church in Philippi to celebrate and be joyful, to work through their disputes, and to honor what is just, pleasing, commendable. And he doesn’t do that because he wants them to be happy dappy Christians for whom the white picket fence never rots. Paul is in prison—the community is in internal turmoil, and it is persecuted by its own people and the Roman authorities. And that’s not to even mention of the difficulty of living a life before modern medicine: a life of losing children, husbands, wives, friends. The people in these communities have lived hard lives.
Rejoicing for Paul is not just to calm the nerves in a time of trouble. Rejoicing is one of the ways that the early Christian communities resisted the authorities, because the Roman occupation relied on their fear, relied on their distrust of one another, and relied on their anger to keep them controlled. Joy disrupted the nature of their control.
Looking around today, it’s easy to see a world full of outrage. Articles all over the most reliable news sources are full of things that anger us. We can see heated battles on facebook, on twitter, and the news cycle increases its ratings by heightening the anger between opposing ideas.
Yet, we have been invited to a feast in a new creation—a new way of living that is about reconciling to one another, rejoicing together and in one another, and about living into the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Perhaps the garment we must wear is the garment of joy—not because God will punish us endlessly for failing to be happy all the time—
but because that garment of joy is the only thing that can truly allow us to persevere against outrage, terror, and violence.
Perhaps without our garment of joy, we the man invited to the feast, can meet our other self—the king—and fall pray to the outrage machine. Perhaps without our wedding robe, somehow we throw ourselves out into the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth because we’ve been convinced that it’s the righteous thing to do.
Perhaps wearing the clothes of celebration—practicing joy in the face of a vicious world—is what keeps us whole.
So this week, I’m going to invite you into a spiritual practice of joy. I invite you to continue practicing the Examen, as we have been thinking about this week—but pay special attention to the joy you have experienced in the day. The steps are printed in your bulletin.
But also, take note of what brings you joy in your life, and pursue it.
Call that friend who makes you laugh until you cry. Go dancing with your spouse. Sing in the shower. Visit your grandbabies. Wander around your neighborhood and laugh out loud when you see something ridiculous. Let yourself be joyful, and let that joy be your prayer.