A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on October 9, 2011
Year A, Proper 23
October 9, 2011
Christ Church, Andover
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together, always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
I’m pretty sure that Jeff chose his vacation time on the basis of avoiding this Gospel passage today. And I’m pretty sure that I would agree with him on this one.
It’s an unsettling parable this morning, and kind of mysterious in its own way! The writer of the Gospel of Matthew gets more and more visceral, violent and urgent as we move closer to the cross, a change from the parables of earlier, such as the lilies of the valley who neither toil nor spin. In the Gospel of Luke there is a similar parable, but without the end part of that last under-dressed guest, so we know that that particular part of the story is one specific to Matthew and his community—there was a reason that he included it in his telling.
In the parable, a king sends his slaves out to gather all the invited guests to a wedding banquet and feast prepared in honor of his son. The invited guests refused the invitation, and when the invitation was re-issued, it was ignored, or passed over for business needs, and even worse, it was used as an incentive to kill the slaves who were bearers of that message. When the slaves were rejected in these ways, the repercussions by the king turn severe. When the banquet is still set, but still no one has come to rejoice for the happy tidings of a wedding, the slaves are sent out again, to gather all the people they can find, good and bad. They are then treated to the banquet.
But we have one man who has not attired properly. The custom at that time was for the host to offer festive wedding garments to all who attended a wedding banquet. To not have accepted one, or to have disregarded wearing it to such an event, was considered incredibly rude, and the king’s response once again, indicates the extent of the perceived offense. There is no indication why that particular man, deemed ‘speechless’, missed out on this tradition, or even worse, disregarded it. But omitted it was, and the man is thrown out into the street by the king, who at first, even as he was asking about the omission of the festive dress, addressed him as ‘friend’.
What are we to do with a passage like this? If we took the first half of it, the part where all the wrong people get invited to the banquet, rather than all the ‘right’ people who disregarded the invitation, we would get to a warm fuzzy ending where we were affirmed in our understanding of God as the God of the underdogs. We New Englanders almost revel in that self-applied designation. But the story doesn’t end there. It ends with that strange coda of the missing wedding garment. As Maria Chan our business administrator reminded the staff on Tuesday as we walked through this parable, it’s like the opposite of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the State Dinner crashers at the White House. In their case, they were without invitation, but dressed appropriately and hence, welcomed; here we have an invitation, but no outfit to go alongside it.
We often understand invitations to put the onus on the host, rather than the guest—that it is up to the host to ensure a good time is had by all. But perhaps this parable asks us to see it slightly differently. As we saw from the speechless young man, we have every ability as a guest to get so far into the banquet and still say ‘no’ to the essence of the invitation. We have been given that right, that trust by God to say yes or no to life in God in Christ. The freedom of will, of decision has been ours since our creation, and nowhere is it more clear than in this particular passage. We can turn away if we want to, we can run in the other direction. But if we decide to stay; to put on that garment of Christ—which may not always be comfortable upon first wearing, we must know what that means. Saying ‘yes’ to the invitation is only the first step; entering into the Spirit, being part of the celebration, is an entirely different thing.
Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote this about celebrating God:
People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state-- it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions.
When the invitation by God is offered, and it will be freely and abundantly offered, as we have heard in the parables of the past few weeks—we have a decision to make. We have a choice, a God-sanctioned choice in front of us. We enter into that celebration of God, of Christ, the active state of expressing reverence, of confronting what it means to live out that faith which we have said yes to. The sin in the parable, if I may call it that, the breaking of the relationship between the underdressed wedding guest and the King—is that his ‘yes’ was lukewarm. It was half of a yes; it was a ‘yes’ devoid of Spirit, devoid of understanding or willingness to enter into what a ‘yes’ really meant. And who knows why that ‘yes’ was half of one—perhaps it was an error, or perhaps it was an oversight as to why he wasn’t wearing his borrowed wedding garment. But in any case, it was not the full-hearted engagement in the celebration to which he was invited.
We do talk about saying ‘yes’ to God and God’s will for us pretty casually in church. It can be easy to be lukewarm in regards to our response to God’s invitation, because it doesn’t seem urgent to us, or it doesn’t seem relevant to our life, and my guess is that many of us live our lives moving from daily crisis to daily crisis of our own. It can be easy to put aside that which we think and know will be around forever, but which doesn’t seem to require our full attention at the moment- the life of the Spirit, the church, the community, for instance. We start putting our time and energy into creating our own golden calves— the gods we create to make us feel less alone, less powerless. The Israelites created that golden idol, their Golden Calf because they thought that Moses had abandoned them. They felt alone. They felt devoid of a leader. They wished for something that would bring them comfort, instant gratification, a god who would not require them to engage in a life changing journey alongside a motley crew of refuges. ‘Yes’ to that invitation, to the celebration of life through the lens of the God of Mt. Sinai, was one which required, as Heschel said, a ‘confrontation’ with the transcendent meaning of our actions. How what we do either reflects the love and mercy and justice that we have been offered by God, or it denies those very things. The golden calf was not evil itself, but it was used as a distraction from God’s true form, which was that of covenant, of relationship.
Heschel wrote that “God is either of no importance or of supreme importance.” It seems that this parable in saying the same thing. Either our relationship with God in Christ is so important that it requires some sort of response, of reordering of life, of re-prioritizing, of identifying and then letting go of our own golden calves—or that relationship has no place at all. God cannot be relegated to a convenience or a side hobby—just as the guest who attended the wedding, but didn’t care enough to put on the garment which would reflect the joy of that celebration. We can be on board and willing to engage in celebration of God—on an active, engaged, public journey—or we will simply succumb to the temptation of faith being, in the words of Heschel, entertainment, our response being based upon our amusement or passive pleasure as a witness on the sidelines. There is no in between, says Heschel. There is no in between, says the Gospeler of Matthew. There is no in between, says Jesus.
What is your response to God’s invitation to you? How does your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ play out in how you live in the way you order your life? Are you stuck in that lukewarm place of, “I’ll show up, but you can’t make me like it?” Are you stuck in the momentary crises of day to day existence and life so much that they have become our gods, our golden calves? Have we forgotten that the life of God is not just relegated to Sunday mornings, but to workdays and working lunches, and PTA meetings, and those 10 seconds of quiet at a stop light to say thank you to God, or help me, or agitating for justice, or welcoming those who look lonely, maybe admitting that we are broken people in a world where broken people are generally not welcome? Have you forgotten how to celebrate God, and settled for just being entertained by church?
God is either of no importance or of supreme importance. My guess is that most of us have said yes, and are in the process of figuring out just where to stand to receive our festive wedding garment. We will help you, help one another, help me, help Jeff, help our community, to continue to discern and grow as individuals and as a community to find out how our YES is manifested here, now and respond wholeheartedly to the invitation to radical transformation in Christ Jesus.