Sunday, March 08, 2015

Speechless: A Parable

A Sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Party

We have been learning from the parables of Jesus, these past few weeks.  As he teaches, Jesus says to his listeners, “To what shall I compare the Realm of God?  To what shall I compare the Kingdom?”

And each week, instead of hearing a straightforward comparison, a basic lesson in similes and metaphors, we have been unpacking a deeper story.  Parables are not Aesop’s fables with a simple moral and life application that will make you a better person; parables mess with your head.
Instead of a direct comparison, they twist our thinking.  They help us explore more complicated questions such as, “What are the boundaries of forgiveness?” and “What if our central organizing principle was hospitality?”  Today, we receive another kingdom sketch that seems to tear both of these prior lessons to shreds.

Today’s parable comes from the 22nd chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.  In our Bible study this week, we discovered that a similar story is told in Luke and in the Gospel of Thomas.  Matthew’s version gives George RR Martin a run for his money.  If you’re familiar with his novels, or the HBO series Game of Thrones, the storyline might seem familiar.

Imagine an occasion spun out of control.  A scene where the soundtrack grows dissonant, you know something awful is about to happen, and yet you are powerless to leave.

(I ask your forbearance if you have known difficult tables of your own.  You already know the agony of which I speak, the terror in the pit of your stomach, the sense of being glued to your chair.  Many of us have been seated at difficult tables where our presence seems to be mandatory. The question before us today is, “how do we wrangle a blessing to accompany us in times such as these?”)

Imagine a wedding feast in a kingdom far, far away.  The invitations go out by priority courier, to those from all over the kingdom.  Both friends and enemies to be present, but an occasion not to be missed.  Imagine the complex seating charts, who it would be permissible to seat at table with whom. Imagine the preparations, boxes and bins of food brought in to a buzzing kitchen.  The smell of an extravagant meal in the works.  Streamers and banners billowing from a high ceiling.  No expense spared to make this a memorable occasion.

And imagine that, when this feast was ready, those invited said, no.  “No, we cannot come.”
Imagine such an insult to the king’s honor.  Imagine the heralds returning, from east and west and north and south with variations on, “no.”  Imagine that some of them did not return at all.  Imagine that others came back, not hot and dusty from the road, but cold, across the saddle, their lifeless bodies all the answer the king needed to demonstrate his alleged esteem in the eyes of those who had refused him.

Imagine the king’s growing rage.  And then, in your mind’s eye, picture fields and cities destroyed at the hand of the king’s soldiers, the skies filled with smoke and scavengers.

Imagine a parody of normalcy, a grim scene in which the banquet takes place after all, and survivors are marched in to eat of what has been prepared.  Imagine their terror.  Imagine the stark reality that this could be all there is, this kind of king, this kind of banquet among the smoking ruins.
Imagine, too, the stark reality that the food within this hall might be all that is available for some time, the fields now empty, storehouses burned, and winter coming on.  Imagine eating this food out of necessity, the opulence of this hall at odds with everything you know is happening outside these doors – one foot in unearned privilege, the other in destruction and terror.

And in comes the king, sweeping up the aisle, when his eye falls on one of these secondary guests.  Not you, thank God, not you.  But a neighbor, perhaps.  Someone across the room.  Dressed in their everyday clothes, quaking in terror, failing to celebrate sufficiently the king’s generosity.  And for the crime of being merely human, and catching the king’s eye, they are seized by guards, bound hand and foot and cast into the cold, cold night.

Congregations around the country are wrestling with this text this week.  Pastors got into intense discussions on Facebook and blogs – yes, it’s true, it is hard to walk away when someone is wrong on the internet.

A traditional interpretation of this parable has it that God is the King, and Christ is the king’s son, whose wedding the feast celebrates.  Those unwilling to recognize or celebrate the occasion are victims of the king’s wrath.  And heaven help you if you make light of the occasion by forgetting your fancy clothes – you’ll be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus says, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”   And once again I say, “not this.”  Not every parable draws a bright connecting line between the parable and the Kingdom.  And while sometimes we do proclaim God as King and Lord – among other titles - not every king in a parable is a figure for the Holy One.

The traditional way of reading Jesus’ banquet story reveals more about humanity than it does about God.  What does it say about us that we leap to the idea of a sadistic brutal God?*   A ruler we cringe in terror of offending?   A ruler whose operating style is at odds with previous teachings on forgiveness and hospitality and grace?

This king sounds more like King Herod, who committed genocide in the interest of maintaining his own power, murdering the children of Israel. This is not a kingdom parable or a kindom parable – it is an anti-king parable.  It cuts down the power players, the kings and the elites of this world, who hold the power of life and death in their hands.  We are constantly invited – mandated – to attend their banquet.

They know it is not an occasion for peace.  I mentioned the series Game of Thrones earlier.  There’s an event called The Red Wedding and it is even bloodier and more terrifying than this parable.  In that tale, one of the people tricked into coming to the wedding notices, underneath a host’s wedding garment, a glimpse of chain mail.  You would not wear armor to a festive occasion unless you knew violence was going to break out.

The way of violence always calls us to violent retribution.  And yet, Christians, we are not called to return like for like.  There is power in standing witness.  On this weekend when our nation commemorates fifty years since the civil rights marches in Selma, on this Madison-area weekend when another community mourns the loss of another black teen, it is good to remember that we do not engage the brutal powers of this world with violence.

Especially on this weekend when we baptize a child in our midst and we say, “you are God’s beloved,” it is good to remember the other garment that we wear.  It is not made of metal or lace; it is fit for neither fighting nor parading one’s material wealth.  It is a simple garment, a servant’s garment.  A baptismal garment.

We wear Christ.  The Apostle Paul would say, we “put on Christ.”  This is our armor against the violence that eats the soul.  This is the finest robe that makes us fit to sit at any of the world’s tables.  This is what warms and shields us when surrounded by weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This is a garment available to anyone who desires it and is bold to wear it.  There is no shortage.  It will not keep us away from bad news or guns or tear gas or grief.  But it gives us strength to stand up to corrupt systems and power players who would burn the place down to preserve their privilege.

It is not an easy word we have from Matthew today, a parable of a king who is not God and a kingdom that is not heaven.  But it is a piece of a story told by Jesus, and it is a gift that it has been passed on to us by a beloved community.

May we wrestle with it for generations to come.  Amen?

Preached for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, for a series on parables.  March 8, 2015 at McFarland United Church of Christ
Image copyright: 123RF Stock Photo.
*I am indebted to The Hardest Question for calling my attention to this line of thought.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Full Availability: A Parable

There were not many jobs to be had.  Not many regular jobs, at least.  It was a bit easier to find a limited gig that would pay you for three days, or two days, or one day at a time.  The economy was based on full availability.  If there was a chance to work, and you turned it down…well, you might not get called again.

That’s what happened the time my grandfather took a day job shoveling out a railroad car during the Depression.   At that time, you didn’t know when the next job might present itself, so you took a job when offered, and you were grateful for the chance to earn something, when the next guy might get nothing.  So he took the job shoveling out the railroad car.  He spent a hard day shoveling salt.   And by the end of the day, when they dished out the day’s wage?  Well, instead of feeding the family, it had to go to buying him a new pair of boots to replace the ones the salt had ruined.

That sort of deal didn’t end with the New Deal.   It’s just as prevalent here at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Some call it ‘Working in Retail’.  Some call it ‘The Sharing Economy.’ Others call it On-Demand Staffing or 'Flexible Staffing Practices'.  Full Availability is a system where it seems the employer has all the rights to organize the employee’s time.  It is not uncommon in retail – and increasingly, in other sectors – to receive your schedule shortly before the week begins, and to be notified that you are “on call” in case of an unexpected surge in customers, expected to report on as little as two hours’ notice.  All of this for the extravagant wage of $7.25 to $10 an hour.

Of course, with your employer’s needs as your central organizing principle, you have precious little energy to devote to organizing anything else: child care, or a search for a better job, or your fellow employees.  It goes beyond paycheck-to-paycheck and ends up being more like hand-to-mouth.