16 October 2008

The Wedding Crasher

Matthew 22: 1-14
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 12th October 2008

After reading this text, it might be difficult for us to say, “This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!” So, let’s get right to the point. It’s the question you’re probably asking: what’s up with the robe? Isn’t the King overreacting here just a little? Couldn’t he just politely ask him to leave the wedding? Maybe find a robe for the guy to wear? He was invited, after all, wasn’t he? He received an invitation to attend the wedding feast. But he was a man of the streets, down and out, maybe homeless, and obviously poor. How could he be judged for not wearing a wedding robe? And judged he was, bound hand and foot, thrown out into outer darkness where he wept and gnashed his teeth. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Ouch.

We might have wished that Jesus’ parable ended with the wedding hall filled with guests, good and bad alike. We have a King who invites guests to a wedding feast, but they came up with excuses why they can’t attend. The invitees even murder the king’s messengers. The king is furious – he sends out troops to destroy the murderers, burn their cities. Then he invites those unworthy to be invited to such a lavish feast – the poor, those living on the streets, on the margins – with the finest food and wine. The story becomes an expression of God’s grace, of welcoming the unworthy into the kingdom. In Luke’s gospel, the parable ends here.

In Matthew we see what happens when the king arrives in the banquet hall to welcome his guests. That’s when he eyes this poor man, this apparent intruder and interloper. “Friend, who let you in here?” but not really meaning “friend,” but more like a bouncer saying, “Listen, guy” or “Buster, who let you in here?” He’s speechless. Before he’s able to utter a word he’s thrown out.

What’s going on here? If you’re disturbed and confused by this parable, then it’s working its magic, doing what it’s supposed to do. Parables are designed to surprise and shock, astonish and provoke, make us feel uncomfortable. They cause us to sit up and take notice, to wake us up! They’re designed to teach, designed to help us see, hear, and understand in new ways. If it doesn’t make sense, then there’s an occasion to discover something new – about ourselves.

Matthew communicates indirectly through allegory. Not every parable uses allegory, but this one does. His readers would have known how to decode the parable; something like this: King=God; son=Jesus; marriage feast= great marriage feast of the Lamb of God at the end of time (see Rev. 19:9); slaves=prophets; those invited=Israel; violence=Israel’s rejection of prophets; destroyed city=fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D.; gathering of good and bad=evangelistic mission of the church, welcoming everyone; wedding hall=church.[1]

But the robe, the robe has stumped a lot of commentators and preachers. St. Augustine (354-430) said the robe represented love. Martin Luther (1483-1546) derided those who saw it as anything other than faith; John Calvin (1509-1564) saw it as both faith and works. [2]

If you’re sitting in Matthew’s church and hear this parable, there’s probably only one association you would have – your baptismal robe. The robe symbolizes the Christian life. Like other clothing metaphors in the New Testament, this garment represents putting on the baptismal garment of Christ.[3] The baptismal robe was placed upon you after your baptism, after having come up out of the water. There were two reasons for this: one practical reason, you were baptized nude. The second is theological. Baptism points to dying and rising – dying to the old self and rising to the new self in Christ. It symbolizes putting on a new life. Putting on a new robe attests to the new life one has in Christ. The robe is the new attire of Christians who are now, as Paul put it, “clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12)” This verse is often read at weddings, but it’s really a baptismal text. Again, pointing to the new life one puts on in Christ. It’s the robe that identifies us as different, set apart, indicating that we’re dressed for the part and not simply showing up for the food and drink, taking what we wish and then return back to the streets unchanged.

Last week at Patrick and Colleen Carr’s wedding, I was thinking about crashing weddings. Their reception was held a Martin’s West (right on I-695), a massive facility that can host several functions at the same time. Walking through the place last Saturday, I thought to myself (not that I would ever do this, of course) that it would be easy to go from reception to reception, trying out the different buffet tables, without anyone ever knowing. It would be easy to crash those weddings. There actually people who do this on a regular basis. Several years ago, I was at a wedding in Washington, DC. My friends discovered that there was someone at the reception, which was held in a private club, who was not on the invite list – they knew this person from their church. She was actually getting married in a few months and probably crashed the party in order to check out the facility!

The sermon title – The Wedding Crasher – refers not this nameless man in the parable. He was invited, as we are invited by grace into the banquet hall of the church. But unless our external lives demonstrate the difference Christ has made in our lives, then we run the risk of becoming wedding crashers, really unfit for the wedding. “Many are called, few are chosen.”. Jesus’ words echo an old Jewish saying that goes, “everybody gets called but not everybody ends up worthy of it.” Or, we might say in light of this text: “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get here.”[4]

More is required of us than merely showing up at the bunch bowl, regardless of our attire. In other words, “we cannot, as this man apparently did, bypass the tailor shop; you cannot skip baptism and its stripping away of the old self and the re-clothing with the new self that just is Christ Jesus.”[5] God wants a “wedding garment,” expects us to come dressed for the occasion, meaning with lives that reflect the one we come to worship, to celebrate, and to serve. Come dressed to serve, not just on the day of baptism, but every day we’re a part of the church.

We can’t take any of this for granted. We’re the recipients of amazing grace, invited to a banquet hall of the King. Very often we’re like the man, we sometimes we don’t even know or forget where we are in the presence of God. Where is the awe? Where is the wonder? Tom Long, who was my preaching professor at seminary, has this image of the scene, “The other guests humbly, quietly trade in their street clothes for the festive garments of worship and celebration, but there he is, bellying up to the punch bowl, stuffing his mouth with fig preserves, and wiping his hands on his T-shirt.” In his self-absorption he’s forgotten where he is. Long says it well, in strong, maybe disturbing language, yet capturing the point of the parable. “…to come into the church in response to the gracious, altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not to conform one’s life to that mercy is to demonstrate spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and happy hour in a bus station bar.”[6]

Providentially, this lectionary comes to us on a Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. We will welcome Ryan Scott into the life of the church. By God’s grace, Ryan Scott will grow into the garment wrapped around him this morning. Wearing our baptismal robe or garment is not unlike a parent who buys clothes several sizes too big for her child. In time he grows into it. That’s what the Christian life is like – ever growing up into mature women and men fit and fitted for the kingdom of God.

His baptism reminds us that we, too, have been baptized, which means we too have received an “altogether unmerited invitation” by Christ to be part of the church, called to live lives worthy of the God who has invited us to the feast. It’s a life of serious commitment, but also the joy of a wedding feast, it requires ongoing change and transformation, of giving up the old self in order to take up a new self, new life in Christ. In some ways, our lives together and alone, are all about growing into women and men who are comfortable wearing the garment of Christ – a garment none of us are worthy to wear, but wear we do, by God’s grace, fit and fitted for the kingdom of God.

[1] This is Thomas Long’s helpful summary of the allegory/parable in Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 246. I’m indebted to Long’s masterful commentary on this text.

[2] Sam Wells, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, October 7, 2008, 20.

[3] Long, 247.

[4] Long’s paraphrase, 247.

[5] Scott Hoezee, Calvin Center for Excellence in Preaching, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/viewArticle.php?aID=233 (accessed 7th October 2008)

[6] Long, 248.

08 October 2008

Only Connect

John 17: 10-26

World Communion Sunday/ 5th October 2008

At the beginning of E. M. Foster’s (1879-1970) novel, Howard’s End (1910), we find two simple words: “Only connect.” So simple, yet they capture a vast world of meaning and purpose. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Why we’re here in church, in faith, in life.

I usually run away from the word “religious” and generally don’t like to be labeled as such. But the etymology of the word “religion” means precisely this: to connect. Re-ligare, from the Latin, means “to bind back to something,” or simply “connect.” Think of a ligament, a fibrous tissue that connects bone to bone or the way orthodontists use ligatures to connect wire braces to realign teeth. It’s the same idea. All religions emerge as a way to help people connect with the divine, the Mystery, the Holy.

Jesus never used the word “religion” (in fact, you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible). Yet his ministry was all about helping people reconnect with themselves, to see the inherent worth and value within; to connect with others, to see the image of God that dwells in our neighbor known in community, fellowship; to connect with God, to strengthen our ties with the One who called us into existence, who loves us, who tells us we need not feel alone in the cosmos.

When I hear Jesus’ “private” prayer in John 17, known as the Great Priestly prayer, because here Jesus is being a priest or mediator between all of us and God, I hear Jesus’ desire that we connect with ourselves, with neighbor, with God, in a whole new way. He uses his own connection, his relationship with God as the model. Just as I and the Father are one – connected, plugged in, together – so he hopes the same for all of us. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

There’s an old hymn that begins with the words, “Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love, the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” Throughout my sabbatical and since then, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading, praying, talking, and listening to folks about the things that tie or bind us together. What strengthens our ties with God? What hinders them?

Only connect. On this World Communion Sunday we know we can’t go it alone. We’re all in this together, this thing called faith or life. We’re all part of the whole. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) knew, we’re all part of a vast matrix, a web of interconnectivity. You’re not safe until everyone is safe. I can’t be who I am meant to be unless you are who you are meant to be.[1] We’re all connected – but our links are tenuous, even fragile. No one can stand apart. In the world of the internet we’re all wired together. When the rich and powerful are selfish, the poor and powerless feel the pain. When the poor and powerless are held captive, so are the rich and powerful. Wall Street is Main Street and Main Street is Wall Street. It’s difficult to separate them. We’re all in this financial meltdown together, whether we have money in the market or not. The anxiety is real for the rich and poor and everyone in between. But we’ll get through it together. We don’t have any other choice. We’re all connected, even with people we don’t think we have anything in common – they need us and we need them.

That’s a gospel message if I ever heard one, especially on World Communion Sunday, as we claim our connection with Christians near and far, as we consider the global dimension of the church of Jesus Christ. Today we are asked to remember the world and to travel around the globe in our imaginations.

In 1867, Mark Twain wrote an account of a trip he made with wealthy Americans, part of the Grand Tour to Europe and the Holy Land. The journey began in Brooklyn, New York. He called the book The Innocents Abroad, Or the New Pilgrims’ Progress. Throughout the book he explores the question whether travel is “broadening” or “narrowing,” meaning does it verify prejudices or reinforce stereotypes. For the most part, Twain affirms the latter given his disdain for “dirt, vermin, poverty, disease, superstition, idleness, exploitation, as well as his scorn for foreign currencies, foreign languages, and foreign garb.” But in the end he makes this confession; we see a change of heart. “Travel is fatal to prejudices, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it [travel] on these accounts.”[2] It’s a conversion for Twain. When does it happen? It probably happened gradually over the journey, but a decisive moment came one morning as he sat within, as he put it, “the charmed circle” – the privileged circle of his camp – of extremely wealthy Westerners, situated alongside a bereft village of Palestinians, watching them watch him.[3] Twain’s image of himself changed when he was able to imagine them looking at him; his self-perspective changed. We need each other to tell us who we are. We need the stranger, the other, to tell us who we are, that why we must also learn to love them and allow them to love us.

The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), surely one of the leading lights of the twentieth century, had a similar kind of epiphany on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, KY. He writes in his journal, March 19, 1958: “Yesterday, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.” There’s a plaque in Louisville today which marks the spot. That experience was a turning point in his life. Once we get this, we see how we’re all in this together. We’re all connected.

World Communion Sunday points to the love of Christ that holds us all together, stranger and friend. We are connected to the worldwide witness of the church. When one part suffers, we all suffer; when one part rejoices, we all rejoice. We are linked together by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who will meet us here in bread and wine and in one another, a Spirit who will draw us, if we let her, into the presence of God – here, at this Table, only to connect.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., from his sermon “The Man Who Was a Fool,” The Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 70: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied tin a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you’re ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” .
[2] Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, Or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress, introduction by Jane Jacobs (New York: Modern Library, 2003), xxvi.
[3] Insight from Jane Jacob’s introduction, xxvi.