I am sometimes asked about the process I go through in writing sermons. How do you know what to preach on every week? Where do you get your ideas? How long does it take? Where do you get your title? I imagine that the process is different for every preacher, and for any one of us, the process isn’t exactly the same every week.
As you may know, I do generally follow the Common Lectionary–the set of Scripture texts assigned for each week by an ecumenical committee so that on any given week, a good portion of the Church is dealing with the same texts. The exceptions to that practice are when it’s a special occasion–like last week’s World Communion Sunday, or a baptism, or an event that’s happened during the week that begs to be addressed–or the occasional sermon series, like a Lenten series on earthcare or spiritual disciplines or various other topics.
This week I read and discussed the lectionary texts with fellow members of my Clergy Support group, which meets once a month. Our church settings are all quite different, and we often approach the texts very differently. Still, our discussions are almost always rich and stimulating.
When we read this week’s gospel lesson–Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Banquet– we all looked at each other and said, “Yikes!” It’s not the Wedding Banquet parable from Luke that we may have expected and which, while challenging in its own right, doesn’t leave you with a pit in your stomach like Matthew’s. You remember Luke’s version?
Someone gave a great dinner and invited many to it. But when the slaves went out to issue the invitations, one person excused himself saying, “I’ve just bought some land…” Another said, “I’ve just bought a new pair of oxen, I have to go try them out.” and still another said, “I’ve just gotten married, and,…well, you know…” So the owner became angry and said, “go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And when that was done, there was still room in the hall, so the owner told his servants, “Go out into the streets and lanes and compel people to come in, so that the house may be filled; for I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
The Gospel of Thomas has a similar version of this parable, and when the invited guests all give excuses, with various things to sell or trade, the owner tells the servants to “go out to the roads and bring those whom you find, that they may dine. Traders and merchants [shall] not [enter] the place of my Father.”
Both of those versions have their own “zing,” but not quite the violence and ruthlessness of Matthew’s version.
At any rate, I had a few ideas of where I might go with the text, having to do with the nature of wedding feasts (After all, wasn’t George Clooney’s wedding on our Joys list just a couple weeks ago?) As well as a few ideas about what it might mean to be dressed appropriately. So, when the time came, all too soon, on Wednesday morning to give a sermon title to the Banner, I non-committally came up with “Celebrate!”
Then I began to dig into the commentaries, the blogs, and websites. “There are seventeen parables in the Gospel of Matthew,” one commentator began. “If you had to choose one that was the hardest to interpret, this week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet is a good candidate.” (Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus) Another one asked,”Why would anyone choose to preach on Matthew’s version of the Great Banquet parable?” (Deborah Krause, in weekly seeds, 10/12/14) It began to feel like that journey of Dorothy and her 3 friends in The Wizard of Oz when they walked into the enchanted forest around the wicked witch’s castle. “I’d turn back if I wuz you,” the sign read. “Either deal with the distinct and unattractive particularity of this text,” a third writer advised, “or choose one of the other three more attractive and far more edifying passages appointed for this day.” (David Lose, inthemeantime, 10/6/14) Well, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and I had already put the title in the newspaper. I decided to deal with it, just as any of us might have to deal with the strange, often unattractive passages that are in our Bible, and someone might challenge us to tell them what we think about that.
So, let’s make sure we know what this parable says, not what we vaguely may remember about “some wedding parable” we heard once. It’s basically, as one writer puts it, the old “‘That’s good! That’s bad!’ schtick-
A wedding banquet–good!
No, that’s bad; the invited guests didn’t come!
But the king sent people to look for them! That’s good!
No, that’s bad; they killed them and burned their city!
But then they went into the streets and invited everyone they found! That’s good!
But then the king saw a guy who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe, and he had his attendants throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!
Oh, that’s bad. Definitely very bad.” [Jan Richardson, painted prayerbook]
This is different from Luke’s and Thomas’ versions–this part about killing and burning cities and binding up the poor schmuck off the street who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe and throwing him into the outer darkness. What is Matthew doing here? Why would he add these details, although it must be noted that the seizing and killing of servants is a familiar pattern in many of Matthew’s parables.
“It’s as if Matthew’s version of the story got taken hostage in the Jewish War with Rome,” one writer says. “All the joy has been wrung out of the party, and in its place Matthew builds in anger, violence, destruction, dread, and eternal damnation…It seems to bear the trauma of Matthew’s context,” which is after the utter and brutal destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome and the siege and final suicide of the Jewish remnant at Massada. (Deborah Krause, ibid.)
Scripture may be “God-breathed,” as someone has described it, but it is transmitted through human hands and mouths, which are never isolated from their human context. When a passage sounds particularly “un-God-like,” you might want to check the human context and see what’s going on in the writer’s world.
This is a tough story for tough times, when the systems and structures seem to be set up with hierarchy and brutality in mind. The residents of Ferguson, MO, and African-American citizens in many other places, know something about systems and structures of violence. Walter Brueggemann, the great Biblical scholar who used to teach at Eden Seminary in St. Louis, was interviewed recently and was asked, in light of the recent events in Ferguson, to talk about the prophets of Israel. The language of the prophets, he said, “has an honesty that can challenge contemporary North American interpreters out of their ‘bourgeois cocoon of niceness.’” (Krause)
Ouch. I don’t know about you, but I confess that much of the time I’d just as soon curl up in my “bourgeois cocoon of niceness.” Most of the people in the world don’t have that option.
Jesus stood in that line of prophets, whose speech was often brutally honest. “Rome didn’t execute Jesus for telling feel good stories,” one writer says. “We shouldn’t be shocked by a parable that shocks.” (Dan Clendenin, op cit.) We might even view this parable as a mirror for the violence of our own society, with structures that are inherently violent to those without power or money or the right color skin or gender or sexual orientation. Most of us benefit from those structures, and so when the invitation comes to a banquet, it may appear as just one more invitation to an appealing event, but honestly, we’ve got plenty of things to do, many of which are quite appealing. “That’s nice,” we say, “but no thanks.” Who of us feels so passionate about the reign of God that we’re willing to dedicate our whole selves, our whole lives to bringing it about? That, by the way, is what “jihad” means–total dedication to the will of God.
The kingdom of God, though, which Jesus talked about over and over, is for everyone. Everyone in this story receives an invitation. Some try to enter on their own conditions–when it’s convenient, when I’m ready, when I’ve taken care of everything else, when I can fit it in–but the consequences of refusing the invitation are disastrous. The king has them killed and burns their city. The consequences of refusing the invitation into God’s love –outside the parable–are equally disastrous. People who refuse to be loved–by the God known by any name, people who maybe believe they aren’t worthy of love, people who have never experienced love from fellow human beings–people who refuse love live lives that are miserable, and often act out in terrible ways. I know that my life feels pretty miserable when I’m feeling unloved or can’t recognize love or refuse to love. We are all invited to the banquet.
On the other hand, by adding on the parable of the poorly dressed wedding guest, Matthew shows that he “knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness,” a wise preacher said. [Fred Craddock, cited by Stan Duncan in If You Lived Here…] “We mustn’t lose the distinction between accepting all persons from condoning all behavior.” While it seems cruel that a poor man picked off the streets to attend the king’s wedding banquet should be thrown out and punished because he wasn’t dressed properly, one commentator does note that wedding robes were usually provided at the door, so that, for some reason, he had refused to take one. (Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 10/5/14)
I’m pretty sure this isn’t advocating a stricter dress code for church, but it did get me thinking about what our choice of clothes–if we have a choice–means. I remember reading that one teacher chooses what she will wear so that poor people will not feel humiliated in her presence. People sometimes ask me if I wear a robe on Sundays, and I do–not because of what it might say to other people, but because of what it says to me. This is your role for now, it says to me. Put aside your concerns about what you’re wearing or how you appear. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” we read in Colossians. Through-out the biblical story, clothes are symbols of relationship with God–be clothed with righteous-ness, put on Christ. Clothing is about intention. How do you intend to be? We “put on” the words of our commission as we go from this place each Sunday. If you don’t have the right clothes on, you can’t be fully present to the celebration.
Grace– which the invitation to the banquet is about– grace is free but not cheap. One writer says that Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet “demands a loss of innocence of the Reign of God as a table that is passively set for us.”[Krause] It might challenge us to be about the work of dismantling those structures of violence and rebuilding a society where there truly is dignity and justice for all. Matthew’s parable reminds us of the free nature of the invitation but demands that we recognize the significance, the awesome opportunity, of this banquet. Do not underestimate its power, its beauty, its joy, its depth. “Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor human imagination envisioned what you have prepared for those who love you,” Paul writes. We may not really believe that, and so we consider the invitation just one of a number of attractive invitations in our lives.
So, is “Celebrate!” an appropriate title for this sermon? Maybe not in the way I was thinking of it on Wednesday, but today, this morning, with all its sharp edges and warnings included, Matthew’s parable still reminds me that this is an invitation worth taking seriously. The celebration is bigger, more challenging, more multi-layered than just a first reading reveals. The world is still a violent, often brutal place, but we mustn’t let its violence and brutality seduce us into believing that’s all there is. So it is that we would do well to also turn to that other, “more attractive and edifying passage appointed for the day,” Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, not as a place of permanent escape, but as a reminder and source of strength.
8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark