Wednesday, October 12, 2011

sermon: "Changing for the Party"

Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
Changing for the Party
By Rich Gamble

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is telling a story to the crowds gathered on the Temple grounds in Jerusalem. A king wants to throw a big bash for his son and invites the elite of the land to join in a sumptuous feast, but the invitees aren’t interested. JC doesn’t explain why someone would turn down an invitation to a royal soiree. Maybe they are too busy to take the time. Maybe they want to avoid the pressure of picking out wedding gifts for a prince. You’ve got to figure that the royal couple didn’t register at K-Mart.

In fact, the elite invitees are so angered by the invitation that they abuse and murder to folks conveying the invitation. That is a pretty strong no.

Kings being what they are, the king retaliates against the elite and kills them and burns down their city. This king isn’t the turn the other cheek sort of guy. Kings rarely are.

So there’s the prince all dressed up, the band is playing, the food is all laid out, the ice sculpture is starting to drip but there are no guests at the party.

The king sends out more of his staff to recruit party goers from the not so elite of the realm. Bring me some tired, and poor/ some huddled masses yearning to eat free the King says in so many words. And who doesn’t want to a free all you can eat buffet? So the good and the bad, the poor and the hungry, the happy and miserable all are invited to the party.

Traditional interpreters say that what is being described here is the grace of God being extended to the gentiles. The Jewish leaders would be the ones who turned down the party for Jesus and the ensuing destruction describes the destruction of Jerusalem that happened about a decade or so before Matthew wrote this gospel.

There are some wonderful aspects to this story and some very troubling ones. If we are to interpret the King as being God, then God is a violent, vengeful force. So that when Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies it seems he is asking his followers to be more loving than God as here depicted. So perhaps this isn’t an allegory in which each element of the story stands for something else. Maybe the King isn’t God. Maybe he is just a king with all the usual brutal inclinations of those who manage systems of domination. And if the king isn’t God then the elite may not be the Jewish leadership and the huddled masses may not be Christians.

Instead of being an allegory maybe this parable is a parable: a story which invites us to enter into a different perspective on reality. People in Jesus’ day, like us today understand people who have the wealth and power of kings. And we understand the notion of a wedding reception. We are not the kind of people who see the world as kings nor are we the kind that would murder the mailman for bringing us an invitation to a fancy party. We like the everyday people listening to Jesus’ story are people who would be thrilled to be invited to a princely party. We may not like caviar or foie gras or escargot but we would like to try them at least once in our lives. We’d like to be invited in through the front doors of the palace. We have no idea why someone would turn down such an invitation but heck yes we’ll be there. And if we are truly hungry, if we are daily ignored by those who don’t want to see our poverty, then the idea of being treated to princely food and treated like honored guests is even more a joyous possibility and not a burdensome obligation. So heck yes we are coming and heck yes we will load up our plates with fancy food, even if we don’t know what it is we are eating. We will enjoy the band, marvel at the centerpieces and the ice sculpture, and the numerous forks and spoons arrayed around our plate. We will lift our glasses for refills and wipe our mouths with fancy cotton napkins, and bask in the joy of being treated like an honored guest.

It is a great image. The folks who normally hold up signs begging for spare change are holding up fancy crystal glasses for refills of champagne.

But then the King comes back into the story. He walks right up to the guy standing next to you and asks the man where his wedding cloak is? The man is speechless, he doesn’t have an answer. So the King has the man tied up and heaved out into the outer darkness where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth. This king is a scary guy.

What’s that all about? Isn’t this banquet a come as you are sort of affair?

Well it seems that just because everyone is invited, there is some implied obligation. If you want to come to the party you have to wear the right clothes.

Elsewhere in the Bible, clothing is a metaphor for behavior. So you can come to the party no matter who you are good or bad, healthy or ill, happy or miserable but…you can’t come unless you are willing to put on a particular set of behaviors suitable to the party.

A parable is meant to open people up to seeing the reality around them in a different light. A royal wedding reception attended by the hapless and homeless, the good and the bad, the everyday people rather than the elite. This is a world view that shakes up the status quo. But his isn’t a parable of simple revolution, it isn’t about the destruction of one class and the elevation of another. Because whoever you are rich or poor, good or bad if you come to the party there is an implied obligation to behave in certain ways.

We know these ways from Jesus’ lessons earlier in Matthew’s gospel and in other passages such as Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Generally this behavior is out lined in basic teachings of Judaism, which boils down to: love God, love your neighbor as yourself.

We don’t get this image of love from metaphors of domination like King. We get them from examples lived out by people like Jesus.

Parables are open to interpretation. I take from this story a wondrous image of world so filled with good things that poorest of us can live lives filled with the abundance of resources of a princely party; the realm of God as an inclusive celebration, in which every person is an honored guest. That is what we are invited into. But you can’t wear your greed or hate or fear at this party.

The army of Pharaoh could not drive their chariots down the path of liberation through the sea. Jesus says the wealthy cannot enter into the realm of God. The path of God’s love is for every person but not for every behavior. Our faith is one of radical inclusion. Everyone is invited but we are invited into a radical reorientation of values and our actions.

The elite of our day, and we may be among them… may not want to put on behaviors which call for radical generosity; they may not want to come to such a party. The elite have become elite in the current system of domination. They may not want to make the transition to a level place with everyone else. And indeed many folks are trying to school us how to be hard-hearted, exclusive and greedy.

When we serve food at Sacred Heart Shelter the servers sit and eat the same food at the same table as the residents. On Friday nights we have homeless people and people who are well off sitting in the same hard chairs and watching the same movies, eating the same donated bread and speaking as equals in the conversation afterwards. Some of you here struggle economically, some of you don’t but you are all equal members of this community. These are small things but they are the foretaste of the Realm of God, where no one struggles for home or food or healthcare and no one has more than they need.

Herman Cain to Wall Street protesters: “If you don’t have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself.” This fits the logic of the domination system. Those who are poor or unemployed have failed to successfully compete for the limited number of jobs out there so they should blame themselves. But this isn’t a foot race for a gold trophy these are people’s lives and everyone whether they come in first or last needs to eat. Those on the conservative side actively defend the social Darwinism ethics of domination. The winners should eat, have healthcare and housing. The losers in the struggle for limited resources should suffer the consequences.

This is not the way of our faith. Basic resources are a gift from God and should be shared among all in need, the good and the bad, the hard working and the lazy, the healthy and the sick.

But to get to this world we cannot use the tactics of the King in this story. We cannot burn down the cities of our enemies; we cannot place them in the outer darkness. We can’t use violent means to achieve just ends.

When the protesters in New York and Seattle embody the radically inclusive love of God they are worthy of our support. If they use clubs or hate speech they are wrong we need to stand in opposition.

The greed of the current system of domination will create anger among those who are not the winners. There is no guarantee that this anger will lead us to a better place. Sometimes such anger has led to even more violent systems.

What the world needs is vision of where we are heading and path to get there. This party of outcasts is a wonderful vision and the example of Jesus is the best path I’ve found. As people of faith we are blessed with the essential resources: vision and direction. We are also blessed with the Spirit of God guiding and inspiring us. And for us and the world that is good news.