October 22, 2017

Series: October 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Matthew 22:1-14

1Once 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. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again 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.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those 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, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then 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.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.” THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


          You’re not wrong.  That is the same Scripture passage we read last week.  It is clear we were not finished with it because on the way out of worship no fewer than five of you asked me, “What happened to the one who was bound and thrown into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!?”  That afternoon, I scrapped my plans for this today and set to studying this passage again to see what more there was to discover.

          At the heart of these questions is the matter of exclusion.  Last week I spoke about God’s ever widening circle of inclusion, but you rightly asked, “What about the one who showed up without a wedding robe and was excluded?”  Fair question.  To lower your expectations for today, I should share with you that my attention was divided as I wrote this sermon.  Some months ago, I shared that a professor and mentor, David Bartlett, the one who preached at my ordination service, had had a stroke.  Professor Bartlett died last week.  His funeral was livestreamed from Yale’s chapel.  So, I sat watching some of my former professors bear witness to the life of one of their colleagues, while simultaneously writing and trying to make good on what they had endeavored to teach me.  Of course, you have to do this all the time in your lives, don’t you, show up somewhere while your mind or heart is elsewhere?  I know you’ll be gracious with me today, and I hope you show the same graciousness with each other and yourselves, assuming the untold burdens we all carry. 

          I share the discomfort you expressed about the exclusion of the one who was turned away from the wedding feast.  I want to say to Jesus, “How could you, of all people exclude someone?”  Then it strikes me that Jesus might ask the same question of me.  I can be quick to be outraged at the thought of a fictional character in a parable being kept from a wedding feast.  Do I share the same sustained outrage over real people in my world who are excluded all the time, from opportunities for good education, from access to clean air and drinking water, from the ability to see a doctor, from safe neighborhoods, from fair treatment by police?  We say we don’t like people being excluded, and yet have built, and inherited, a society that is riddled with exclusions. 

The recent fires have brought out the best in us, with the outpouring of generosity in response to those who’ve lost their homes. They have also surfaced some difficult questions for me around the question of exclusion in our society.  I am mindful that many who live in the path of those devastating fires are those who actually serve communities down here or elsewhere. Teachers, nurses, police, plumbers, landscapers, nannies, and firefighters, the people who care for us, teach, raise, and protect our children, are not paid enough to live here.  A fire chief lost his home in Santa Rosa.  He is the Mill Valley Fire Chief.  That says something to me.  In the wealthy town of Ross, the firefighters’ quarters are so moldy they have to sleep in temporary housing behind the firehouse?  We pray for them often.  Taking better care of them would be a fuller expression of our appreciation.  Speaking of Ross, I heard it referred to a couple of years ago by an African American, as a “sundown town.”  I had never heard that term before, but it means its known among minorities that if you’re not white, you are to be out of there or at the bus stop by sundown or you’ll be picked up. 

It’s uncomfortable, but if we are going to ask challenging questions about exclusion in the Bible, we have to do so about our communities too. If this Bible story gets us to ask those questions it has done its job.  If we can respond not defensively but creatively, this awful tragedy presents an opportunity to address some critical issues about life in this part of the world.

I know there is a difference between something such as exclusion happening in our world compared to that sanctioned by Scripture. It seems as though Jesus is being quite frivolous, excluding someone for not having the right robe.  Not so fast.  Scholars remind us this passage is rich with symbolism that would have been apparent to its original audience, but has been lost on us.  The wedding robe is a metaphor for transformation.  The Apostle Paul talks this way, when he speaks of conversion as clothing one’s self with Christ (Romans 13:14). Jesus is quite clear that following him means changing one’s life and how one sees the world.  The implication, lost on modern ears, is that the wedding crasher in the parable wants to come into the party, but doesn’t want to change their ways.  This parable is not about being properly uniformed; it’s about being appropriately transformed.  Following Jesus means trying to live a certain way.  If one doesn’t want to, there is no point.  In that sense, exclusion is not so much a punishment; it’s a natural conclusion.  It’s like joining a soccer team, yet refusing to use your feet. 

Now, our sensibilities might well say, “Look, we should let anyone in who wants to come in, no matter how committed or certain they are.” Indeed, the bar for joining this congregation is exceedingly low—no offense.  Essentially, if someone says they want to be a part of us, they are invited in, and I join you in celebrating that commitment to inclusion. 

In light of that, allow me, however, to make a case for the importance of demanding transformation, of change, of not accepting that it’s okay for everything to stay the way it is in our personal lives and our collective life. Many of you, I trust, have been following the revelations around Harvey Weinstein, the accusations of horrific and seemingly endemic sexual harassment and sexual assault.  It is one of the most abhorrent of sins, abusing power to violate the most sacred of aspects of human existence.  Something has happened this week that has left me often shuddering in front of the computer screen.  As I scroll through my social media feed, I see woman after woman, and some men too, post those two chilling words:  Me too. 

“Me too,” is actually a movement that began years ago, but picked up particular steam in the past week as courageous people came forward acknowledging their own experience of sexual harassment and assault. I say they are courageous in coming forward, but we should really say they are courageous period, not because they have told us about it.  That’s their choice.  It wasn’t the string of celebrity revelations that got to me, though that has been eye-opening in its own right.  It’s been all my female friends posting “Me too.”  I mean all of them.  It feels like all of them.  Daily as I scroll down, I’m caught up with each new revelation.  People I went to grade school with, “Me too,” colleagues from college and graduate school, “Me too,” seminary classmates, “Me too.”  I’m even in a preaching group with clergy from around the country and half the women in the group so far have posted, “Me too.” 

Is it exclusive to say that behavior that violates others sexually is unwelcome in our community? Well, technically, yes, but that’s righteous exclusion.  The goal isn’t exclusion, the goal is transformation.  We might say the Kingdom of Heaven is like a party where women, or men, don’t have to walk in pairs or watch what they wear.  Yes, to come in, you have to clothe yourself with Christ, which isn’t to make a Presbyterian pledge; it’s to honor the sacredness of all beings and all bodies.  To clothe ourselves with Christ, isn’t to bow to the power of the church or its pastors, it’s to empower those who are powerless, and to give voice to those whose voice has been denied or discounted.  To clothe ourselves with Christ isn’t to become fashion models, but to model our life after Jesus Christ.  Why would Christians want to make that optional?  That’s essential.

Let us focus on the transformation, not the exclusion. Focus matters when it comes reading the Bible.  One of the gifts Professor Bartlett gave us when he was preaching on a particularly challenging portion of scripture, in which Jesus takes on those who have a lot in this life, is that the point is not to foster guilt; it’s meant to inspire responsibility, responsibility for one another, which is what Jesus was trying to teach.  The point of the parable isn’t to scare you, it’s to help change us into a more loving and just community.  Don’t we want that?

That was one of Professor Bartlett’s most memorable lessons. My most lasting memory of him, however, was not in the classroom.  It was of being in chapel with him, and not when he was preaching.  I can recall standing in the pew in front of him and being struck by how loudly he sung the hymns.  In fact, I started to try and position myself near him.  He sang those hymns loudly because he believed them, because they were beloved by him, as was the Jesus he gave his life to teaching people how to teach others about. 

At Bartlett’s funeral, a former student recounted hearing him preach about the parable of the lost sheep, when tax collectors and sinners, those who everyone thought should be excluded, gathered to hear Jesus.  Rather than tell them they were excluded, Jesus lifts up the image of the shepherd who drops everything to go after the one lost sheep, to bring them safely in, Jesus, who elsewhere, called himself “the good shepherd.”  It’s funny because the hymn I most associate with Professor Bartlett singing in chapel is “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm.

Its final verse reads:

The sure provisions of my God

Attend me all my days;

O may Thy house be mine abode,

And all my work be praise!

There would I find a settled rest

(While others go and come),

No more a stranger or a guest,

But like a child at home.

 Now, you tell me, is Jesus about throwing a good party, a safe party, a life-giving party, one that is worth getting dressed up for? Amen.