No Jacket Required
I’ll tell you a little secret about ministers that you might not know. Most ministers will tell you without hesitation that, given the choice between performing a wedding and performing a funeral, they will choose a funeral every time.
Does this surprise you?
If the only wedding you’ve had intimate knowledge of was your own wedding: you know, the one where everything went smoothly and all the diverse members of both families joined together in perfect harmony to create the storybook celebration of love you’ve always dreamed of—well, then, you may be confused by my claim.
I think we all know: weddings can get a little crazy!
Really, it’s a holy honor to be part of an important day like a wedding. But because weddings can be crazy, over the years I have collected some pretty funny stories. These include but are not limited to: the time the groom fainted—out cold!—as his bride was reciting her vows. Or the time the musician didn’t show up and I had to interrupt the Burmese congregation in worship down the hall to see if anyone knew how to play “Here Comes the Bride” on the piano. Or once when one of the bridesmaids veered from the middle of the aisle as she processed, brushing her excessively hairsprayed head too close to one of the candles and catching her hair on fire.
It is true that sometimes performing weddings can be stressful, but, as you can see, you’re bound to collect some pretty amazing stories along the way!
I don’t know for sure whether Jesus performed many weddings, but he certainly told stories about them. Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is one of those stories, but if you were listening closely you know: this one’s not so funny. In fact, this parable is yet another passage of Matthew’s gospel that just doesn’t sit right with us. It’s distasteful and harsh; it doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation; any way you look at it, it’s bound to offend someone.
Some version of this parable appears in Luke and in the extra canonical Gospel of Thomas, but neither of those recountings comes close to the urgency, direct manner, and even harsh tone with which Matthew tells it.
Each gospel account in our Bible tells the story of life with Jesus from a little different perspective. That’s only human, as we know from watching any courtroom drama unfold: people who live through the exact same incident can tell vastly different stories, colored by their own biases.
We would do well to remember that the writer of Matthew is a Jew, writing to a Jewish audience. Scholars think he wrote his memoirs toward the end of his life, shortly after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, during which the city was sacked and the temple destroyed. In the writer’s memory, those words of Jesus from decades before were speaking harsh judgment to the fractured community of Jews in Jerusalem, predicting that an inability or unwillingness to heal their hurting community would surely result in deep destruction.
The way Matthew remembers Jesus telling it, the story is an allegory, a commentary on the political situation of the time: the King is God. The son for whom the king is throwing a wedding party is Jesus. The king’s stewards are the elite Jewish leaders. The people who refuse the king’s invitation and the man who comes to the wedding without a suit coat on—those are the folks within the Jewish community who prefer the status quo as it is; those who fail to recognize Jesus as Messiah, who refuse to admit that the power structures in the temple need revamping.
Over the thousands of years since Matthew penned his memoir, of course, this parable has been coopted and used in very dangerous ways by Christians who preferred to take this wedding story and use it as evidence of a vengeful, wrath-filled God who gives license to hurt, kill, exclude: Jews, Muslims, other Christians, anybody who thought differently than they did.
In short: we have before us today a wedding story that was not intended as an allegory for our situation, and that has been misused and misinterpreted with vigor for thousands of years. So we read this wedding story of Jesus, as recounted by Matthew, and we’re left struggling to understand its application for our own lives.
There are many things that, from our 21st century perspective, make interpreting this text as direct allegory dangerous—and some of us would even say impossible. For one thing, if God is the king throwing a party where everyone is welcomed, how come God invited the popular crowd first and only invited the rest of us because the cool kids wouldn’t come?
That’s certainly not the God Jesus introduced us to throughout the gospel story.
And, if the king is God, and everybody is invited, who is this God who meets us at the door, checks to see if we’re following the dress code, and if not, throws us into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Is this the God who welcomes the stranger and insists that we forgive our enemies?
I’m thinking: no—not so much.
This parable is not about us.
Which is why, you may have noticed, this is not a text on which preachers line up to preach. It’s too hard to make the allegory work.
Still, we believe that the Bible is a living text, full of fresh perspectives for us in all times and places, the word of God for the people of God thanks be to God! So, let’s not shy away from this parable today. Let’s take a fresh look at Matthew’s memory of Jesus’ words and see if there’s any way at all we, the people of God at The Riverside Church in the city of New York in 2014 might hear a word from the Lord today.
There’s a king who decides to throw a big wedding party; he invites all the notable people in his social circle to the biggest event of the year.
We, the institutional church in America, are like the king in this story. We have long been in the process of throwing one big party in celebration of our status in society. For decades, especially in America, the institutional church has been the bastion of morality, the compass of compassion, the gathering place for the socially prominent.
But lately, in the past few decades especially, we’ve been getting everything ready, throwing fancy parties as we always have done, resting on liturgy, tradition, rules that have served us well for hundreds of years, and, well, people aren’t showing up.
In fact, they are intentionally going away—off to do other things. And sometimes they are even making light of what we do, the ridiculous rigidity of our party that doesn’t speak with any authenticity or authority to the situation of the world as it is now.
So sometimes, given this response, we give in and bend a little.
If the popular crowd won’t show up, we’ll open the doors a little wider. Maybe we expand the guest list because we’re following our convictions, but mostly (if we’re honest), we do it because we’re scared that nobody is showing up and we’re desperate to make sure the party is a success.
And with the pressure of declining influence, we’re gradually adopting stances that are a little more edgy, trying to get people to listen to what we have to say, to invite us again to the table, trying to give the institutional church’s voice some legitimacy again.
We’re even mixing up liturgy, trying new strategies for bringing in the crowds, stocking coffee bars and hiring rock bands and working every angle we can to make ourselves popular again.
The thing is, though, we’re the church. We’re an institution that claims to follow Jesus the Christ.
And so, Jesus keeps showing up to challenge our desperate grasping that’s so often void of true conviction. Jesus shows up—right there, at the big doors of our institutional life together, just like your unruly first cousin who talks too loudly and embarrasses everyone, and he’s wearing just the wrong thing!
He’s wearing messages like: we don’t measure success with numbers or buildings or budgets; we measure success by faithful community.
He insists: the real party is not in what the outside world sees of us; the substance of our life together unfolds in the moments where we choose to love each other through conflict, treat each other with respect, tell the truth, do the hard work of human community.
He claims: we’re not always the most effective when we’re present in the halls of power or at the tables of the most popular; we’re following Jesus most closely when we take up the cause of the poor, speak for those without a voice, insist on justice even when it’s not popular.
He keeps saying: our work is to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us; turn the other cheek; give away what we have.
And when Jesus shows up wearing messages like that, we don’t like what he’s wearing, do we?
Perhaps this parable speaks into our modern day life together as the church of Jesus Christ and asks us the question: when Jesus shows up wearing the wrong thing, asking us to live boldly into a new way of being the church, insisting that we give up our socially dominant position, do the hard work of loving, including, living the gospel right here…what are we going to do with him?
My apologies to the writer of Matthew’s gospel for my liberal license with his memoir this morning, but I can’t help reading these words intended for a first century Jewish community and wondering what this story has to say to us, the institutional church in America in 2014. As an institution on a national level, we are facing a crisis. As one commentator noted this week, folks aren’t looking at us with the same esteem they used to use: “To the society at large, the church has become better known for its perceived homophobia, ignored child sexual abuse, amateurish political activism and mindless young-earth creationism rather than the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Of course this wedding story Matthew told wasn’t told as an allegory for our community. But the words and witness of Jesus in this living text are certainly meant for us.
You may be aware that today is Hands Up Sunday, a weekend where faith communities all over this country are speaking out and calling for an end to police brutality, and specifically the mounting deaths of young African American men at the hands of the police. There are many who have even traveled to Ferguson, Missouri this weekend to protest in the streets. We, the church of Jesus Christ, should be speaking out, calling for this terrible state of affairs to end.
And, no one—no one—is going to take the church’s insistence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri seriously, until all across America, faith communities begin taking the words of Jesus seriously inside our walls.
What Jesus did for his original audience when he told this story, he continues to do for right here. He shows up wearing the wrong thing, inviting our outrage, because what he’s asked us to do IS outrageous. He’s extended an invitation to see life in new ways and to live boldly into the promise and possibility of the gospel. He pushes against our carefully maintained standards of comfort and conformity, to change the way we look at our practical and institutional life together.
We can try to keep Jesus down, push him back, insist on the way we’ve always done things, banish him to the balcony, throw him as far away as we can…but he’ll keep coming back, dressed all wrong, until we open our hearts and our hands and our lives and our institutions to welcome the one who is always inviting us into God’s ongoing recreation of this world.
Hard words, for sure.
Today may we hear them again, and be changed.