Proper 22a, October 12, 2014

October 13, 2014

Our Properly Unpredictable God
Matthew 22:1-14

22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Last week I talked a little bit about the difference between an allegory and a parable. I pointed out that an allegory is generally sort of a straight story who’s fictional characters represent identifiable people or entities, and that a parable is a story that goes off in a strange direction in order to make you question your view of reality. This week’s story reveals how fuzzy the line can be between those two types of stories. What we have this week is a story with some strong allegorical features that concludes with a twist that’s fitting of a parable. So when you start reading this parable you think you know what it’s all about. You think you know who represents who in this story and how it’s going to play out, but the story ends with a bizarre twist. If you don’t find yourself saying: What?!! – you aren’t paying attention.

I mean the situation is that Jesus is in the temple and he knows the chief priests and the Pharisees and all of the other people who didn’t like his message and leadership style were plotting against him. He knows that he’s dealing with some biblically literate people, so he knew it wouldn’t be hard for his detractors to understand what he was saying. They knew that he was connecting them with that long line of false prophets and leaders who lead the people of Israel astray. This story of the wedding feast is a pretty transparent tale that identifies the current leaders of Israel as being like those guests who were invited to the king’s wedding banquet and then refused to show up.

This story portrays the kingdom of God as being a place where you are not likely to find the people who were originally invited to be a part of God’s holy community. It reveals the ongoing tradition of abuse within the leadership of Israel and it identifies God’s rejection of those false leaders in a rather graphic way. You think you know how this story is going to end with the king inviting to the banquet those who were formerly uninvited. That is in fact what happens, and the king seems pleased that these new guests actually show up. It seems to be such a nice story for people like us who were never a part of the community that originally rejected Jesus, but out of no-where the king sees someone who isn’t dressed properly and he has his guards grab that man, bind him, and throw him in to an entirely unpleasant place.

Did anyone expect this to be the way this story would end? Does this not make you wonder what kind of organization you’ve stepped in to?

You may have come here this morning in search of some kind of refuge from the terrible stories that inundate our digital news-feed-lines – you come in here in search of some respite from the world and you hear a terrifying tale that seems to portray God as being far less hospitable than you would expect from the One we call the Author of Salvation and the Giver of Grace.

Luckily this is a story that utilizes fiction and hyperbole to illustrate a point – this isn’t a literal portrayal of how God treats houseguests, but the truth is that following Jesus is not a free ride down a lovely lane through a peaceful valley. The Judeo-Christian faith journey is simply not for everyone.

If you are looking for a safe organization you need to join an alumni association or something predictably hospitable like that. It’s sort dangerous to get involved in a church. Alumni associations only want your money, so they will always be nice to you and tell you how wonderful you are. The church wants your money also, but that’s not all that it wants. There are other expectations as well, and if the church is true to it’s roots it’s going to make life a little more complicated for you. The church is an easy organization to join, but following Jesus is hard! It’s actually sort of scary.

I was visiting with a man the other day who had been the Chairperson of the Finance Committee in another UM church here in Little Rock. He had been in that role for a number of years, and he said he still remembers what it felt like to wake up on New’s Year’s morning when he first rotated out of that position. He said his first thought of that year was how thankful he was to be finished with his commitment to that work. I recognize that this isn’t a very good story to tell as we are currently finding people to fill various positions within the church, but it doesn’t matter whether you are willing to do that kind of work or not – if you pay attention to the call of Christ in your life you are going to experience some uncomfortable demands.

Following Christ has it’s benefits. After all, Jesus is comparing it to being invited to a wedding banquet, but don’t expect it to be an easy party to attend. You may think you know what’s right and wrong and who needs to do what in order for everything to work out right, but if you pay attention to what Jesus said and did and you earnestly want to take his words seriously he is going to disrupt your comfortable way of viewing yourself and others. The church isn’t like an alumni association – it doesn’t just tell you how wonderful you are – it makes you engage in some self-examination and life-evaluation.

Frankly, it would be so much easier to be Christian if we didn’t read the Bible. It would be so nice to turn Jesus in to the kind of lord and savior that good reasonable people like us expect him to be. It would be nice to create some clear formulas for successful living, but Jesus makes it hard to do that. Just when you think you know who the bad guys are, and who is at fault for the problems we face in the world, in the church, and in our communities – you experience Jesus in a way that makes you wonder about yourself. This business of seizing a man who isn’t wearing the right clothes to the party is frankly pretty unsettling to me.

Now I’m not here to scare you to death. I honestly don’t believe that God is as brutal and bloodthirsty as this story might indicate. This is a story, and I don’t believe Jesus intended for us to live in fear of what God’s going to do to us if we don’t act right. I just don’t believe that this story is designed to portray the actual way God rewards and punishes people. But what I do believe is that if you want to find your way in to the most abundant life – into the rich community that God has most graciously invited us to be a part of – there are some expectations.

We don’t have to show up for this party. In fact it may be very reasonable to ignore this invitation to God’s banquet. We can continue to live really normal lives and be perfectly content with ourselves. I don’t expect God will ever leave us alone, but we don’t have to respond to God’s initiatives. I think God probably sends out more invitations and solicitations than your average politician. And we can ignore God’s invitations as easily as we ignore those endless political fliers that are coming in the mail these days. I don’t know if God can match the size of some of the post-cards that are coming in the mail these days, but I’m sure you can actually trust the information that comes to us from God.

I don’t think the intent of this passage is to generate fear of God, but I do believe it is designed to illustrate the importance of connecting our lives with our professed desire to show up for God. If we accept the invitation to this divine banquet that we call the kingdom of heaven – we need to pay attention to what we put on.

I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you are wearing totally inappropriate clothing at an event, but I have, and I hate that feeling. I think the worse time I ever did that was when my daughter Liza was about 2 years old and I had taken her to a Mother’s Day Out program at a YWCA in Durham, NC. After dropping her off I went home and started working outside. I was doing some painting on our house and it was hot and I had taken my shirt off. When I realized I was about to be late picking Liza up I jumped in the car and started driving to get her. I was about half-way there when I realized I didn’t have a shirt on, and there wasn’t one in the car. It wasn’t a short drive, and I was already a bit late, and I was mortified by the thought of walking in to that day-care situation without a shirt on.

I was near a restaurant where I knew the manager, and of course it isn’t proper to go in to a restaurant without a shirt on either, but that seemed like my best option. I ran in with $10 in my hand begging for a t-shirt and luckily my manager-friend was nearby and they sold me a shirt before throwing me out. I was so relieved to get a shirt on before I stepped in to the Mother’s Day Out community. I was late, but I avoided the humiliation of being so improperly covered.

It’s a terrible feeling to be inappropriately dressed. And I think Jesus told this parable so we would pay attention to our spiritual clothing. This parable stresses the need for us to be faithful to claim of Christ. I don’t think of this as a warning about what will happen to us in the afterlife if we ignore the demands of our professions of faith. I think Jesus wants us to feel the discomfort right now if we aren’t wearing our faith well. Jesus told this story to expose the impropriety of the religious pretenders of his day and of ours. The living Christ doesn’t want those of us who recently got invited to the party to think that we are fine just because we aren’t the former people.

There are so many ways to become ill-fit for the kingdom of heaven. It’s so easy to get this business of discipleship wrong. It’s always easy to take a little bit too much pride in not being like someone who seems obviously ill-clad, but that’s an even uglier way to dress. It’s hard to know exactly what God expects of us, but we need to pay attention. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you than to warn you to watch out for the way you are wearing your faith, but God has some clear expectations for the way we look.

You probably came here this morning thinking it doesn’t matter what you wear, but I’m telling you it does. Shirts and shoes aren’t required, but don’t expect to feast at the banquet of the Lord without putting on some compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and love for your enemies as well as your friends.

There’s a strict dress code in the Kingdom of God – you’re better off ignoring the invitation than to try to get in without putting on some hand-me downs from Christ. But if you are willing to wear some of that Christ-like-self-giving love you will find that there is a place for you at the banquet of the Lord! And thanks be to God for this!


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