Sunday, October 11, 2020

Participate In The Party

 

The actions of the king in today's parable leave us scratching our heads. What good news is here for us?

At almost every wedding I have been to something goes wrong. Maybe, it’s the sweet flower girl dumping the whole basket out halfway down the aisle. Perhaps, it’s the unexpected rain shower that completely drenches the entire ceremony. Or, it could even be the groom saying the bride’s name is Rachel instead of Emily, as famously depicted in the show Friends. However, I have never been to a wedding that has quite so many wrong turns as the one in today’s Gospel lesson.

If you think this story is ridiculous and are concerned about the events that take place around this wedding ceremony, you are right! I mean this story is upsetting. Sure, we can laugh off the invited guests dismissing the first invitation—who hasn’t missed a wedding because of work or a football game? We can smirk as the father of the groom sends a second message, this time with the delicious menu detailed—food will surely get them to show up! However, when the invitees murdered the messengers, we surely move from charmingly intrigued to wholly disgusted. I know I am perplexed by this—does this sort of thing happen at other weddings for royalty?

Looking at the 2018 Royal Wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry—the one at which our own Presiding Bishop absolutely nailed the homily—what happened when guests didn’t show? It is hard to say if any invited guests were no shows. According to one report[1] there were 20 celebrities who were either snubbed or didn’t bother to turn up, but they didn’t murder the curriers who brought their invites. So, shooting the messenger is not normal for royal weddings!

And while Queen Elizabeth may have her problems with no-longer-Prince Harry who has abdicated his royal responsibilities, I do not believe she has besieged even his estate, which is unlike the king from today’s story. So, what is happening in today’s Gospel lesson—this is weird behavior, even for a parable.

Parables are meant to show us what the Reign of God looks like, but certainly this story goes off the rails of what Jesus’ Kingdom is like, right? Those invited to the prince’s wedding killed the messenger. The king responded by murdering his own subjects and burning down his own city. How did the stakes get raised so high, so fast—from polite invitation to scorched earth in just 3 verses? If this violence were not weird enough, the wedding is still going to happen.

Imagine this for just a second. You are the caterer for a royal wedding. Suddenly, the wedding planner approaches you to say, “Can you make sure the mini-quiches don’t chaff? The wedding guests are going to be awhile, the Father of the Groom has gone to burn down a city, and he invited a bunch of strangers to the reception.” WHAT? Think about the poor bride and the in-over-his-head wedding celebrant who is trying to manage all these personalities. So, if you haven’t picked up on it already, this story is intentionally over-the-top. It isn’t simply about the Reign of God in general—it’s an allegory for the in-breaking Way of Christ in late 1st Century Palestine.

This is not a story about someone’s wedding. We can let go of our own projections of how terrifying this would be if it happened at a loved one’s ceremony. This isn’t meant to be a realistic story—it’s an intentionally audacious allegory crucial to understanding Matthew’s community that was a part of the Early Church.

Now, I’ll be honest in these disrupted times that we are living through I was not happy to pull this Gospel when I saw the preaching schedule. It is really disturbing to read something really disturbing when we are already really disturbed, but maybe—just maybe—knowing that this is an unrealistic tale—even for a parable—will allow us to see this story with new eyes. So, with these new eyes I have three questions: 1. Why is this such a violent and high stakes story? 2. What does this allegory tell us about the Early Church? and 3. Is there any truth or Good News here for us?

First, why so violent and high stakes? This story is so aggressive because when Matthew shared it his community was engaged in an all-out struggle for existence. This was not a battle pitting Christians against Jews. It was an intermural conflict within Judaism.[2] The Early Church thought of themselves, especially within Matthew’s community, as faithful Jews who were responding to God’s call for them. The story was so violent because this community was facing existential threat. So, this helps us understand the allegory a bit better, which gets us to the second question.

What does this allegory tell us about the Early Church? In the late 1st Century this story would have resonated with its one to one comparisons being made. Matthew’s Community would have seen themselves as the faithful ones who came to the party after the original invitees turned down their opportunity. Their Jewish brothers and sisters who ignored the Messiah’s coming in the person of Jesus were depicted as the ones who ignored the wedding feast. The burning city would have called to mind Jerusalem, which was besieged in the year 70. Matthew’s community may have even seen this attack on the Holy City as God’s judgment because the religious leaders had ignored the prophets and these new bearers of God’s good news in Christ.

If this is where the allegory stopped though, it would be horrific, as it would have only focused on the wrongs of others, specifically the synagogue down the street. Sadly, this story has been manifested to harbor Antisemitism and violence against our Jewish friends for far, far too long, but Matthew was not Antisemitic. His community was at least partially Jewish, and in the end this allegory is critical of his own community.

As one scholar put it, Matthew was not “working out some rhetorical violence against opponents, and assuring his own community that they are on the right side of salvation history,”[3] for at the end of this story, the king strikes once more.

When the king spotted one of the guests pulled in from the street wearing plain clothes, the monarch lost it. He said, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” — “Who wears a t-shirt to a black-tie party?” Then, this guest gets tossed out by the bouncers, not out of the party, but out of the still burning city—where real bad stuff happens like sobbing over the state of your soul and worrying over your spiritual existence. If this is an allegory what does this stand for?

Proper clothing, wedding clothing equates to being ready to live by the community’s standards. You might ask, “If one were pulled off the street to attend a wedding would that one really have on wedding clothes? Who walks around in a tuxedo or a ball gown?” Again, this is not a realistic story, it is allegory. Matthew’s community demanded living by rigorous requirements, so through this story he was saying, “we cannot be self-satisfied.” Matthew here was willing to point out the plank in his group’s own eye, not just the sawdust residing in the eye of a neighboring group.

For Matthew’s community, the wild, unpredictable king has flung wide open his gates. Everybody—I mean everyone, good, bad, and indifferent—gets invited! What happens, though when you walk into the feast? Or, what Matthew was getting at—what happens after you joins this new way, do you get complacent? What about us? After we commit to following Christ, are we to fret over the king coming by? Are we to live by the old adage, “Hurry up, look busy, Jesus is coming?” I don’t think that’s the point here, but it begs the question, is there truth or Good News here for us?

In this world of the parable the guest from the street got thrown out not simply because of the lack of wedding robes. Sure, the whole story throws us off. It is violent and odd, but what may seem most off is this little detail. He got thrown out for wearing the wrong attire—this is not an episode of “What Not To Wear”!

Like Charles said last week, parables break down at some point and here is where this one breaks down. This guest gets tossed out for not wearing the right clothes, for not following the rules. Jesus was one who did not follow the rules. Jesus intentionally broke the rules around Sabbath, eating, and healing. He befriended the wrong people, touched the wrong people, and loved the wrong people. So, this detail about the rules and the robes causes this entire parable to shift, or rather it causes me to shift my thinking about what the truth is, what the good news here is for us.

This is not a story about rules. It is a parable about participation in a party. The one thrown out was thrown out for not joining the fun. This was not just some party, but the most festive feast of all time—the wedding, which through Christ forever unites earth and heaven, heaven and earth. Even the usually somber theologian Karl Barth put it this way, “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”[4] In other words, whether we ignore God’s countless invitations to join the party or we come to the feast without joy in our hearts it is the same—we are foregoing the life-altering love that God has for each of us.

Thus, the Good News for us is that the Reign of Christ is an already inaugurated, but still not fully realized feast that breaks through the bounds of time and space. We participate in it at this feast every week. However, if I have learned anything over the last seven months of upheaval and not having Communion weekly it is that I need the Holy Eucharist! We are made from the Communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so of course we crave it. What is more, even if I am joyful coming to the feast, I am even more joyful departing it. We are to take this party wherever we go. God’s feast is too big to be constrained to one day a week or fixed to one place.

 The Good News for us is that we are not to worry about whether we are wearing a tuxedo or a tuxedo t-shirt, an evening gown or a night gown. Rather we are to cloth ourselves in the majesty of God and the joy of this feast! We have been invited to the greatest party of all time! Allow the elation of this feast, which forever unites earth and heaven, heaven and earth, allow this to permeate into all of our lives. For this isn’t just some wedding, we are joining the greatest party that has ever happened. So, let us not just keep the feast, but take it with us always! Amen.



[1] Megan Decker and Jennifer Algoo. “20 Celebrities Who Didn't Get Invited to the Royal Wedding.” https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/g20720710/who-didnt-go-to-meghan-markle-prince-harry-royal-wedding/ [written: May 20 2018, accessed: October 9, 2020].

[2] Lance Pape. Working Preacher. “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204 [written: October 12, 2014; accessed: October 9, 2020].

[3] Lance Pape. Working Preacher. “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204 [written: October 12, 2014; accessed: October 9, 2020].

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 588, quoted in Jarvis, Cynthia A., “Matthew 22:1-14: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28, WJK, 2013, 186.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Identity Crisis

Jesus' coming as the Messiah was even more disruptive than moving from a rotary phone to a smart phone.
 

© Seth Olson 2020
August 23, 2020—Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost  

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Video of today's sermon may be found here: https://vimeo.com/450836046

O God, let my words be your words, and when my words are not your words, let your people be cunning enough to know the same. Amen.

This week school started for many in our community. We prayed for our students, their parents, as well as teachers, administrators, and staff beginning this academic year both last week and earlier this morning. The usual emotions of excitement, anticipation, and curiosity are tinged with anxiety, trepidation, and fear—it is as challenging a start to a new school year as has ever been.

This is not to say that school wasn’t hard enough already. It was! While our children and adolescents are learning science, math, language, history, social studies, the arts, and sports, they are also discovering who they are. They are figuring out their identity. Learning to fully accept who we are is a life-long journey, and it has always been tough. Still it feels especially tough right now. I feel for not only our children and teens, but all of us as we navigate who we are and who we are becoming in this ever-changing world. We are not alone in this self-discovery though.

In today’s Gospel lesson we observe Jesus wondering the all-important question “Who am I?” with his closest followers. He first asked them a safer version of the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (It would be like me asking, “What are people saying about the 30-something-year-old Associate Rector at All Saints?”) Jesus did not refer to himself directly, but used a title—“Son of Man”—that he often applied to himself. And he did not ask the disciples point blank, but instead allowed them to crowd-source their reply.   

Jesus did not go so far as to ask the disciples for the wrong answers only, but the crowd’s understanding of Jesus was nonetheless off the mark. The masses believed Jesus to be the recently martyred John the Baptist or a longer dead prophet like Jeremiah or Elijah. We will come back to these incorrect answers in a moment, but first Peter tells us the truth of who Jesus is. In the midst of all the healings, teachings, and confrontations with the Pharisees, God had opened Simon’s eyes to the truth. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

By merely uttering these words Simon underwent a transformation from a struggling follower to the Rock of the Church. To behold Jesus as the Messiah—the Savior—the One coming to save the world is enough to change anyone’s life. Jesus gave Simon the nickname Peter (the Rock) because he had—with God’s help—realized this truth before any of the other disciples. We would be wise to remember that Mary, the Magi, John the Baptist, the Canaanite woman, and others had discerned this earlier in Matthew’s Gospel account. Still, this acknowledgment of who Jesus truly was, and who he still is—the Messiah, the Christ—has the power to transform not just Simon, but us too. Now, what about these other answers? What about the wrong assertions of who Jesus was? Why might they be useful to us?

The crowds professed that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. With 2,000 years of hindsight we can clearly tell these answers are wrong, but they help us nonetheless. The crowd’s responses all had in common that they were prophetic voices from the Jewish Tradition. In other words, they were known commodities. The crowds would have heard Jesus and recognized echoes from their people’s past. Sometimes, as human beings, we have a hard time understanding something or someone as wholly new, and we try to put them into an already existing category or box. It’s challenging for us to face a completely novel and disrupting force—even if it is good for us. Let me give you a modern analogy.

Do you remember rotary phones? If you are younger than me you may not even know what a rotary phone is, but it was the way that people used to have to make phone calls (mimic dialing with rotary). It was a slow process. But, then came along the touch-tone or keypad phone. It was a big advancement, but still an “incremental improvement.” It would be like going from one prophet to another. More recently though there has been much more disruptive advancement … “combining a phone, a camera, a computer, a music library and player, a GPS device, and a mobile Internet portal,”[1] as phones evolve into smart phones. Jesus’ coming was not a rotary phone evolving into a keypad phone, but rather it was much more unsettling—like going from no phone to a smart phone overnight.

This analogy though can be harnessed to talk not only about Jesus’ coming and his disrupting of the systems of the day, but also to the current moment. We are in a disruptive era. Even before the pandemics we now face, we were looking at times of change, especially in the Church. Long held institutions (including religious ones) coming under greater scrutiny, seven-day work week schedules, and the appeal of other interests have made it less likely for some to find merit in traditional, Sunday morning church. Unlike in previous decades it has not been enough to hang a church sign and open the doors, and that is even more true since March.

If we were already experiencing such a time of upheaval, and now we are facing these pandemics, we cannot simply try to go back to the way things were. The bell cannot be unrung—the toothpaste cannot go back in the tube—the smart phone is not exchanged for the rotary phone. I had a New Testament professor who warned against jumping from one Gospel account to another—what she calls “making Gospel soup,”[2] but disruptive times call for disruptive measures. This moment calls for jumping from Matthew’s account to John’s telling of the Good News where we hear Jesus say one must be born again. This does not mean, as Nicodemus thought, we go through the womb a second time. Rather, in such a challenging age, we are being called to be spiritually reborn. Honestly, we have always been called to this divine rebirthing, but it just has not been so dramatic in any of our lifetimes.  

We are in an unprecedented time. We are facing seemingly endless challenges on manifold fronts. This is not a rotary phone evolving into a keypad one. This feels like going from the stone ages to the internet age overnight. In the middle of these challenging times we might be wondering who are we as a Church and who am I as an individual? Whether we are heading back to school, trying to navigate new work realities, struggling with unemployment, facing isolation, or worrying about our own health or that of our family, we are all trying to figure out who we are in this new day. Who am I now? Who are we going to be as the Church now?

These questions are so crucial that they—on top of everything else—may make us feel like we are collapsing under the weight of it all. Ugh! These questions are important—don’t get me wrong. I love wondering about them and about who we are, but there is still an even more important question.

Like Simon we are called to wonder about Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” How will we answer? If we take hold of Jesus not just as a teacher, healer, and disruptive force, but also as a Savior, something changes. So often I find myself trying to save myself instead of resting in the truth that Christ has come to make me—and all of us—whole. We cannot save ourselves and as I let this sink in the words from a Gospel lesson several weeks back flood into my heart: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[3]

Yes, we will not come out on the other side of these pandemics the same way we came into them. Yes, it is crucial to wonder who we are and who we are becoming. Yes, this has been and is a disruptive age. But the biggest yes is that in God we can rest, in God we can trust and not be afraid, in God is our hope, and whatever it is we are going through we can know fully that God is with us.

As you answer who you are remember also whose you are. For we all belong to God. May we rest in this truth, especially as face such disrupting times.



[1] Brian McLaren, “A Disruption of the Spirit” from Center for Contemplation and Action Daily Mediations, Wednesday, August 19, 2020: https://cac.org/a-disruption-of-the-spirit-2020-08-19/.

[2] The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Kittredge was fond of saying this to my seminary New Testament class.