Saturday, October 11, 2014

But I Thought I Was Invited

Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
William G. Carter

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' 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.

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. 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.' For many are called, but few are chosen."

Maybe it is an occupational hazard, but I have seen a lot of crazy things that happen at a wedding. Perhaps it is the monogrammed nature of the event, with most couples wanting to add their own personal stamp to a day that is pretty much identical to everybody else’s. We have all seen the bubbles, the balloons, the birdseed, and the best man who gives an inappropriate toast. A lot of weddings feature a drunken uncle or the cousin who suddenly overcomes a fear of dancing.

I have given the benediction to two lovebirds who roared off on matching motorcycles. Or there was that day when I yelled at a photographer who climbed over these pews to get a good shot. My very first wedding featured a few ushers who stood out in the narthex and handed out bottles of Budweiser to the guests as they arrived. And I know about the bridesmaids who hid a goat in the bridal suite on their best friend’s big day.

But only once have I encountered a bouncer posted at the door of the reception. He was 6’5,” shaved bald like Mr. Clean, with an ominous scar on his upper lip. It was a shock to see him. “I’m here to keep the ex-husband out,” he announced. And it worked.

That picture comes to mind when I return to this strange parable in the Gospel of Matthew. There is a bouncer at the party to which everybody has been invited. The host is a king who has gone to extraordinary lengths to fill up the banquet hall. He invited the people on his A List, but they would not come. He invited them again, saying, “Look at all the food, everything is ready – I want you to come!” But they refused, ignored him, turned abusive and murderous. So the king, in his rage, blasted them away. Let me remind us: this is the Gospel of Matthew, which specializes in over-the-top parables.

Then, like the owner of the vineyard in chapter 20 who hired workers all day, like the landowner in chapter 21 who persisted in chasing after his rent, the king of chapter 22 sent more servants to invite more people to his party. The A List had refused, so he invited the B List, the C List, anybody who would come. He wants a full banquet hall. He insists on every chair filled.
Yet when he appears at the door to work the crowd, he sees some poor sap who shouldn’t be there, so he motions to the bouncers and they toss him out of the room. The lesson is “Everybody is invited, but that doesn’t mean you can stay.”

Earlier in the week, I surveyed some of my preacher friends and asked, “What are you going to do with this one?” My friend Susan was probably the clearest in stating, “It’s a hundred times easier to talk about idolatry and the golden calf.” Indeed it is. Anybody can wag a finger at the manufactured deities that otherwise Christian people worship and devote their money. It’s a lot harder to hear that God’s Kingdom is like a big party where everybody is welcome but some get tossed out.

It helps a little bit to remember this parable is in Matthew’s collection. Matthew snarls a good bit, hurling verbal thunderbolts to scare people out of hell. He hovers over those stories Jesus told where an unfaithful investor is thrown into outer darkness, or the story about the slave who has been forgiven but cannot forgive somebody else and thus is tossed in the dungeon. Jesus told other kinds of stories, too, but Matthew prefers stories where people get punished. I wonder what kind of people were showing up in his church.

It is Matthew, only Matthew, where Jesus is quoted as saying, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ is going to enter my kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father” (7:21-22). It’s Matthew who can’t stop wagging his finger at the hypocrites, at the people who put on a good face when their hearts are ugly. In other words, they are faking it. “Play acting” is the literal meaning of “hypocrite.” They put on the outward show, they say all the right holy jargon – but that’s not who they are at all.

Like this poor sap who shows up at the wedding banquet: he’s in the right place, but he doesn’t look right at all. There is an inconsistency between how he looks and where he is. And when he is called on it, he can’t even find the words to explain. No, sadly no. He is a fake.

I think I know this man. I have seen him in my own bad dreams. Know what I mean?

Back in my last year of college, I was required to take a class that I did not want to take. I knew I didn’t want to take it, because I tried to take it two times and backed out quickly. Once with a tough professor, once with an easy professor. I hated the class, so I dropped it like a hot potato and took something else. The academic department disagreed, and stated if I was going to get my diploma, I had to take the class.

So I bought the textbook ahead of time, read it, and said, “This is easy.” I signed up for the class the third time, and then I did what every immature student does when his parents are spending a lot of money on his education: I skipped all the classes. I didn’t go. But I show up to take the midterm, and I knew the material cold. I went in, I took the test, I aced all the answers, and with a triumphant grin, I walked forward to hand my winning exam to the professor. And then he said it, “Who are you?” Uh… uh… I had no words. He did give me the A, but I was exposed. He knew I was a fake.

I have never forgotten the feeling, the fog of inconsistency, the sense of disconnection. I was in the wrong place, pretending to do the right thing. Ever have that feeling yourself? It’s like a bad dream

I have the dream sometimes. It’s a funeral of somebody well loved, and it’s going to be well attended. That day, the church is already full, the parking spaces are taken, and I wake up late. There’s no time to shave, I didn’t have time to iron my shirt, and they are waiting for me. I rush in to pull on my black robe, but it doesn’t fit. So I yank it and it rips, but it’s time for the service to begin. So I rush into the sanctuary, I don’t know where I left my sermon, and they are all waiting for me to speak –and I look down, and I don’t know these people at all. I’m in the wrong church. And unanimously they look up at me and say, “Who are you?”

It’s a bad dream. Nobody wants to be exposed as an imposter. Nobody wants to be seen for how inadequate they really are. Try as you might to hide it, try as you might they will learn the truth about you – that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you don’t know which fork to use, that you have forgotten your hostess’ name, that you have no business being there. And you don’t even have the proper wedding gown to pull over your head.

Matthew’s parable is pretty extreme at points, but this part is dead-on accurate. Everybody else got the memo on how to dress. Everybody else knew where they were and how they needed to act. The king had no trouble spotting the one who didn’t fit in, the one who did not belong. With perfect clarity, the king says, “Buddy, how did you get in here?” He’s busted. It’s one of those bad dreams.

Why do I call it a dream? Because of what somebody points out about this parable:

“Real people don’t turn down a king’s dinner invitation, much less torture and kill the messengers who came to fetch them. Because once you have a whole ox and several fatted calves on serving platters, they won’t keep while you wage war on a whole city, kill its inhabitants, and torch the place. Because who really expects someone napped in the middle of [daily chores] to have a clean wedding garment in the back of the truck?”[1]

Jesus tells this fantasy story as a way of getting to a real issue. He calls it a parable, which is like a fantasy or a dream. It’s a big spacious story where we can walk around, smell the banquet, hear the dance, see the variety of faces, and then spot that one hapless imposter who is truly in the wrong place. And that’s when it reveals its message.

All of us know the problems of being a hypocrite. It takes a lot of energy to maintain an extra persona. You say one thing but you do another. You say, “Have a great day” to the person at the check-out line and blast your horn at the slowpoke in the parking lot. You tell everybody how worried you are about the homeless, the hungry, the young people – but then you never lift a finger to help. You announce how important it is for people to be generous, but you yourself never write the check. You tell your family you love them, but all they see are the evaporated words going into the air. It takes such energy to construct a false face.

As Matthew reports it, nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of religion. In his day, religious people had an endless capacity to make up lies about how good they are – they talk a good talk about living righteously while they plunder the poverty of widows, they use the privileges of their institution to put a burden on the backs of other people. They preach the prophets of Israel, calling out the idolatries of their land, while ignoring the man who needs a cup of cold water and warm place to stay the night.

Meanwhile there’s another kind of hypocrisy, too, a fear that, maybe if I am exposed, I will not be included. That if they really knew how inadequate I feel, they wouldn’t want me around. Some of you know what I mean. You can hold the hymnal right-side up and sing all the words, but you aren’t confident that they apply to you. You try so hard but you’ve never excelled. People pat you on the back and say “great job!” but you have a hard time believing it. You see the obviously unworthy man bounced from the king’s wedding banquet, and you live in terror that maybe you are next.

So here’s the thing – we walk around in the parable, smell the banquet, see the dance, and if there is any way that it confronts us, then we have the opportunity to be healed. To have the false self expelled and the true self revealed. To welcome the truth that exposes before it welcomes. It is, as one old theologian said, “To accept the fact that we are acceptable to God,” just as we are, not merely as we wish others to see, but as we are: broken, needy, hungry to be loved – and welcomed to a generous banquet that we could never manufacture ourselves.

This is the Gospel’s invitation for us. The place cards have our names handwritten. The King will do anything to get us to come, all in the hope that we will want it enough that we will stay. The invitation is for all who come as they are in the grace of Jesus Christ, and not merely as they discount themselves or want others to imagine them to be.

So we come . . . We come in the simplicity of our baptismal gowns, we come in the integration of our words with our deeds, we come in the great truth that God’s Rule over us is a festive celebration, after all, a wedding of heaven and earth where the will of God is done and the love of Christ is made real.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, unpublished sermon on this parable

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