Sermon: “Be” You

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.”

Matthew 22:1-14

My sermon from the Twentith Sunday after Pentecost (October 15, 2023) on Matthew 22:1-14.

So last week, I noted that the story Jesus told was one of the more violent ones he ever shared. I had to qualify that statement, though, since I knew today’s story was just on the horizon. Jesus, after entering the city of Jerusalem while riding a donkey, immediately headed to the Holy Temple to disrupt worship during one of the holiest weeks of the year. He, in his own way, kept challenging the status quo which was risky since Roman soldiers were busy patrolling the streets. The local religious leaders asked Jesus why he was doing what he was doing and he responded by sharing a few stories. The first involved two sons who struggled to fully embrace the promises of God. And then, while the faithful around him grumbled, Jesus told another story about renters who lashed out violently when they were told to share the fruit of their labor. This, according to Matthew, was when folks decided that Jesus had become too much of a problem. But instead of taking a step back and embracing his identity as the prince of peace, Jesus pushed forward and told another story about a wedding party that was anything but fun. 

Now I tend to read Jesus’ parables from beginning to end, letting his creative choices reveal God’s word to me. But today, I think it would be better to begin our reading of the story near the end. Once the city was burned to the ground and everyone in the surrounding area dragged to the wedding reception they couldn’t say no to, that’s when the king noticed someone who wasn’t properly dressed. This person is someone we know very little about since they’re not described as good or bad or as anything in between. All we know is that they weren’t among those who received the initial invitation to the party. And they, like everyone else in the crowd, had their lives interrupted by a king who took them from their homes, workplaces, and schools t so they could gather in a wedding hall before all the food got cold. No one in that space had the opportunity to head home and change into an outfit worthy of a royal wedding. They, instead, came exactly as they were since they never expected to be there in the first place. My hunch is that the people listening to Jesus’ story would have recognized this problem but automatically assumed that a king who prepared everything at the party before any RSVPs rolled in would have a plan to deal with it. When the guests arrived in their ripped jeans, wrinkled chinos, and brightly colored athleisure – everyone would have received a wedding robe once they arrived. The king not only prepared the feast but made sure everyone, the good, the bad, and those who weren’t even supposed to be there, had everything they needed to fully participate in the party. What the king saw, then, wasn’t someone who was underdressed or who lacked the resources or opportunity to let loose and have fun. What they saw was someone who was enjoying the food, getting busy on the dance floor, and admiring all the elaborate ice sculptures at the center of every table, but who refused to be as fully committed to the party as the king was to his guests. They chose to not embrace what the king had given to them. And so, in response, the king refused to let them stay and “be” among those who had made that party a part of who they are. 

Now a few nights ago, I was invited by Rabbi Loren Monosov of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley to attend a short solidarity gathering at their temple. It was organized as a response to the terrorist attack that occurred last weekend and the ongoing crisis that everyone knew was about to come. She began the event by inviting everyone to simply be. We were given permission to recognize our fear, worry, anxiety, confusion, sadness, horror, anger and whatever else that we felt. After a short prayer and reading Psalm 121 together, we took a moment to listen to a song recorded and filmed in Jerusalem itself. As a non-Jew who doesn’t speak any Hebrew, I’ll admit I didn’t really know what the song was about. Yet being there with our Jewish friends and neighbors helped to ground me in a story that wasn’t fully my own. Instead of letting my own perspective, point of view, or religious story supersede everything they were experiencing in that moment, I saw how letting people “be” can often be the most faithful thing we can do. Holding space so that others can navigate through a crisis is a necessary difficult thing to do. And as the video of the song reached its end, I also saw how much work us Christians still have to do. The video we were watching was being streamed from Youtube and, when it got to the end, Youtube automatically invited us to click on a few other videos the algorithm thought we might be interested to see. The tech operator at Temple Emanuel didn’t let those recommendations appear on the screen for very long but I had a moment to read a variety of video captions on the screen. Many of the recommendations were simply additional videos from the same event that song was recorded from. But at the very top was, from what I could tell, a video attacking Judaism itself. It would be easy to act as if I didn’t really see what I saw or as if it didn’t matter since we regularly work and serve, teach and pray, and listen to all of our Jewish friends and neighbors. Yet brushing it aside would be a failure of our own Christian duty to recognize how those videos and the algorithm that recommends them are often crafted by those who profess to follow the same Jewish rabbi, prophet, teacher, healer, king of kings, and lord of lords that we do. It’s hard to “simply be” when there are those who would choose, either consciously or unconsciously, chaos over hope, peace, and love. And when we’re caught up in moments when it looks like disruption, fear, and hurt is about to come out on top, Jesus’ words remind us of the wedding feast we’ve already been invited to. When the waters of baptism were poured over us and the seal of the Cross etched in oil on our forehead, our invitation to the party God’s already started was publicly given to us. That invitation wasn’t something we did anything to earn but was given to us because God remains faithful and committed to all that God’s loves. God’s commitment, then, invites us to fully embrace what the wedding party of God should be all about. We, then, are called to welcome because Jesus welcomed; to include because Jesus included; and to heal, serve, share, and disrupt every status quo that denies the humanity, hope, and peace that is God’s wish for all. That kind of work often requires us to recognize the ways we as individuals and as a community have hurt and harmed others by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. And it’s through that work when we get to show up for our neighbors while they navigate through a crisis that makes hope so hard to see. Creating the space needed so that others can safely “just be” is one of the ways we embrace the garment of grace given to us in our baptism and faith. And when we fully embrace the commitment God has first made to us, that’s when we get to do the very holy thing of showing up for our families, our friends, and our neighbors with a love that never ends.