By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14
Someone crashed my wedding reception. Strange as it may sound, it is true. Now, according to my husband, he was an acquaintance of one of Britt’s childhood friends, Lee Ann. Lee Ann was actually a member of our bridal party. Britt tells me that Lee Ann introduced him to this young man – although Britt can’t remember his name and Britt had never seen him before either. Still to this day, if we glance through our wedding album, we can view photos of this nameless stranger – this stranger who traveled more than 300 miles across a state line to attend our wedding reception. To eat our food, to dance to the tunes of the DJ, and to enjoy the sacred day without ever so much as saying a word to me – and, obviously, devoid of a wedding gift. Now, perhaps I’m hard-hearted, but that seems a little nervy to me, a little presumptuous. Now, it’s really not the lack of a gift that makes it so bad – there were others who attended who didn’t really have the resources to buy us anything. Their presence was their present. Nor was it about eating the food. After all, my parents got to “foot the bill” for that. And it wasn't about him "getting down" on the dance floor. It was the lack of relationship that made it presumptuous – he did not come to honor Britt and me; to celebrate the blessing of the love God had given us for one another. He merely hitched a ride to someone’s party.
This morning’s parable from the Gospel of Matthew is also a story about a wedding reception. Now, parables are an interesting genre. They sometimes function as similes. Just in case you don’t recall from school, similes are when one thing is likened to another. The blankety-blank is like the blah, blah, blah. Or, in Jesus’ case, the kingdom of God is like… and that’s how the parable would begin. This parable has more than its fair share of comparisons… and surprises. It begins with reference to a king and his son. Now, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out who the king and his son represent, right? This king is all set to throw a splendid wedding reception for his son. Now this is no rigatoni and fried chicken affair, I suspect. Not like Britt’s and mine. It’s more like the reception of some seminary friends of ours – Dominic and Lillianna. Lillianna was from Italy. She was her father’s only child. And so, from the moment she was thrust from her mother’s womb, in true old world fashion, her father began to plan for the blessed day of her marriage. The reception was quite the affair. It had 5 courses, I think. Not counting the sorbet that came in between the courses to clear our palates. That’s the kind of affair the king of this parable was planning I imagine – one he’d been preparing for from day one. All the honored guests had already been notified. Everyone knew to clear their calendars. But, a strange thing happened. When it was time for the celebration to begin, the king sent his servants out with the last-minute reminder (kind of the ancient version of the 10-minute before event notification on today’s smart phones). But those servants received a cold reception. Talk about clicking the “dismiss” button. All those honored guests decided they didn’t want to be bothered. They had better things to do. Some of them even decided they’d have a little fun with the king’s servants and rough them up, knock them around a bit. Some were even killed.
Needless to say, none of that set very well with the king. So, he wages war against this town. He has those miserable ingrates put to death and then he torches the city. Now, you may see a problem in the plot at this point. Because, although a king should and must respond to insurrection with force, to obliterate one’s own kingdom really doesn’t seem very logical, does it? After all, if you trash the whole town, who will be left to pay homage, or taxes for that matter? Yet, even after the city is burned to the ground, servants return, yet again, to round up revelers for the reception… which leads to yet another difficulty. I’m thinking that dinner is not much worth eating at this point. Any fatted calf kept warm for that long would be tougher than shoe leather.
The servants return with whomever they can find, folks hanging out on the street corners more or less: an interesting, eclectic lot, no doubt, who are pronounced to be comprised of the good and the bad. Good and bad. Remember that. And so, the reception begins. Soon the king is out mingling with his guests when, lo and behold, he discovers one who is inappropriately dressed. Now ladies, you know what this is like. It’s happened to all of us at least once. Those embarrassing social occasions when we thought jeans were perfectly acceptable but all the other ladies were wearing a dress. But the real curious thing here is that one has to wonder where this street person was supposed to find proper wedding attire. I mean, how many street people own a tuxedo? The man is questioned and, when his response is nothing but a blank stare, he’s banished. Bounced from the party and – worse yet – cast into a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yikes!
Friends: this parable is disturbing, isn’t it? It seems poorly constructed and pretty brutal. The power of parables is their ability to catch us off guard and surprise us. But this one goes beyond surprising. It’s just baffling and troubling. So, what are we to make of it?
Well, I’d like to suggest that we do our best to not become distracted by plot inconsistencies, but rather, to look at two things that, I think, clue us in to the primary message of this parable.
First, context means a lot. The setting for this parable is what we now call Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus is in Jerusalem, specifically in the Temple. Jesus’ audience for this parable is the religious leaders and authorities. Since early in Matthew’s gospel, they have been dogging Jesus’ heels and criticizing him. They have been seeking to discredit and shame him. This parable is the last in a trilogy of parables which are spoken right after the religious leaders have confronted Jesus with the question, the challenge, of where his authority comes from. These are the religious leaders, the authority figures. And, as religious leaders, they should be the ones most tuned in to God’s presence. Yet, they are never able to see God’s presence and God’s work in the person and ministry of Jesus. If anyone should have figured it out, it should have been them. That was their job. But instead, they seek to undermine and humiliate Jesus constantly. They are like the guests invited to the king’s banquet, a banquet to honor his son. But they will not even acknowledge his son and, in snubbing the son, they dishonor his Father.
And so, because those who are the guardians of the faith have failed to honor the king and his son, the king has rejected them and flung wide the gates of his banquet hall to everyone. He’s taken it to the streets. And that is why we are here today, friends: we who are Gentiles, the theological street people, blessed because God has torn up the guest list and flung wide the doors of his kingdom to people of all ages, races, and nations… as our baptism liturgy puts it.
But that, of course, is not the end of the parable. Remember that those who come in off the streets represent the good and the bad. And so we are brought face to face with this final parabolic character, a guest who showed up underdressed. Again, we can’t get hung up on the question of where a street person could have found fancy party clothes. But, in many places in scripture, clothing is symbolic of our inward spiritual condition. Isaiah 61:10 reads: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Friends, clothing symbolizes our inward spiritual condition. And God, the king, wants to cloth us with righteousness. It is a gift offered us. We need only put it on. So perhaps we should interpret this individual’s clothing as representative of a apathetic and arrogant inner spirit; a spirit that shows no more regard toward the king and his son than those who originally ditched the party. Like the stranger who crashed my wedding reception, he has thoughtlessly strolled into this banquet. He neither knows nor cares who or what he is celebrating.
The year I graduated from seminary, my whole family traveled from Pennsylvania to see me graduate. The day began with worship, followed by a luncheon, and concluding with the commencement ceremony. The President of the seminary at that time was Leonard Sweet. Some of you may have heard of him. He’s a prolific writer and a charismatic speaker whose tall, distinguished appearance commands a presence... for most, at least. My niece, Emily, was five at the time. Emily, even to this day, has never had a hard time standing up for herself. Following worship, I and my family made our way into the fellowship hall of Grace United Methodist Church and seated ourselves around a large, round table. Emily was excited by the day and socially wired. She began to make her rounds – charming the socks off of anyone she cared to impress. Her seat sat vacant. That is until Seminary President, Rev. Dr. Leonard Sweet, made his way to my family’s table. Exchanging pleasantries with each of us, he then inquired if he might remove the vacant chair. Much to our embarrassment, before any of us had an opportunity to respond, my niece boldly announced that he could not. It was her chair. Needless to say, Emily had no idea who stood in her presence: seminary president, famed author and public speaker. She neither knew, nor did she care.
Friends: I want to confess to you that I had a bit of a struggle with this parable and sermon this week. Right now, life seems pretty hard, doesn’t it? COVID is on the rise in many states around our nation, including ours. Indiana is now at more than 1,000 cases a day. Things are so bad in St. Joseph County that churches have been asked to suspend in-person services. Social unrest continues around our nation. Just this week charges were filed against Amy Cooper. Last spring, when an African-American bird watcher in Central Park asked Cooper to leash her dog, she became belligerent and phoned police falsely reporting that a black man in the park was threatening her. And I don’t even need to say anything about our nation’s nasty, partisan politics, do I?
I’ll be honest: I don’t get out of bed in the morning as early as I used to and, based on my conversations with you all, I’m not alone. Many of us are struggling right now and it is a temptation to just shut down, to withdraw from things and not engage. After all, we might say, engaging socially isn’t much fun anyway when it involves masks and social distancing or video screens. And our church is no different. The longer this pandemic runs, the more people are withdrawing and not participating. And I get it. It’s hard; so hard. But the truth is, God is still with us and there are still blessings to be found in his presence even in the midst of this mess. The king’s banquet hall is, in some ways, a metaphor for our experience of church because church is not really a building; it is the experience of God inviting us, together, into his presence, coming together with Christ in our midst. And every time we gather in that way, whether it’s in this sanctuary or in the GREAT Room or on the lawn or online; every time we gather with one another, it is a celebration. God’s Spirit moves among as the king mingled with his guests. It’s an incredible banquet, a bountiful feast and God has prepared it for us. And so this morning, as hard as it is, as exhausting as it is, I want to encourage you to continue to draw close to Christ and to one another; to not ditch the party. I know it’s hard for all of us. It’s hard for me. But, we need it. It is a blessing God has prepared for us. It feeds our souls. It sustains us. So, let us come together to honor the King and to receive the bounty of his grace.
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