The Very Rev. Gary Hall
Whenever clergy get together, the talk (sooner or later) turns to weddings. Every priest I know has at least four or five hilarious wedding stories. I think we enjoy the stories so much partly because none of us has ever done a wedding where everything went exactly as planned. Something always goes either slightly or massively wrong, and these are events where so much energy has gone into getting everything exactly right. The great weddings we remember are the ones where everyone approached the occasion in a spirit of joy and let the celebration be less than perfect. The funny ones are those that seemed vexed from the start.
Weddings are often emotionally laden affairs. Part of the reason they can be tense is that our culture puts so much pressure on the idea of the “perfect” wedding. Another explanation lies in the way weddings really signify the final leaving of home. We don’t grieve well in America, and so instead of crying with each other about our kids leaving home and the end of the old chapter, we ring in the new era with pitched battles about seating arrangements, flowers, and what’s printed on the napkins. One long-time priest friend of mine vowed that henceforth he would do weddings only for those who could prove they had no living relatives.
Just imagine the consternation in the household whose wedding Jesus depicts in the Gospel for today. A king puts on a wedding banquet for his son, and no one shows up. Having no guests at your wedding is probably not as bad as being stood up at the altar, but it’s a close second. It’s easy to understand the king’s rage. It’s also easy to understand why, in exasperation at the continued refusal of the guests to respond, he sends his servants out with these words: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” If you’ve paid a year’s salary to the caterer, the florist, the dressmaker, and the stretch limo driver, you don’t want everything to go to waste.
Jesus’ wedding tale [Matthew 22:1-14] is, of course, not a clerical wedding story. It is a parable, a teaching that tells us something about the nature of God and God’s reign. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” This story uses the analogue of a wedding which the invited guests blew off as a way of describing the action of God. Let’s think about it together for a few minutes.
The traditional way scholars and preachers have interpreted the parable of the wedding guests is to see a parallel between the old and new wedding guests and Judaism and Christianity. In this interpretation, the original invited guests are the Jews. What we might call the “second seating”—those brought in from the streets—are the gentile Christians. In many ways this is an obvious way to read the story: Jesus came to the Jews, they rejected him, and so the church was opened up to the non-Jewish world. It makes sense except for two things: first, Jesus was executed by Rome, the gentile power par excellance. Second, the Christian trajectory away from Judaism toward the gentile world took place in the time of Paul, not Jesus. So reading this parable as a story of Jewish rejection and gentile acceptance of Jesus is at once neat and easy and wrong. It’s anachronistic to project post-Jesus experience back onto the teaching itself. We’ve read the parable that way because it seems to explain why the Jews did not sign up to follow Jesus en masse. But such a reading gets in the way of our hearing what Jesus might actually be trying to say.
Even though I speak as a representative of organized religion, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of Jesus’ teaching was actually a critique of what people like me do for a living. We set up systems that claim to organize and broker the holy. When I read the New Testament and hear the way Jesus argues with the Pharisees, it’s hard for me not to see myself as one of them. The Pharisees, like the Episcopalians, are good people who are trying their best to follow the rules and do things right. They are respectable in all senses of the word. The only problem is that, over time, they have begun to equate respectability and rule-following with holiness.
When you read the stories about Jesus in the Bible, you can’t help but notice how much time Jesus spends with people whom you and I would not consider respectable. He dines with sinners, consorts with lepers, the demon-possessed, and prostitutes. He does so for many reasons, but at least partially because the respectable will have nothing to do with him. Like the king in the wedding story, he has no choice but to take his message someplace else.
So when we read the parable of the wedding guests alongside the larger story of Jesus, we see a different parallel and discover that he’s telling us a story not about Jews and gentiles but about himself and the religious establishment. Simply put, the church ladies will not hang out with him. So he takes his message to the streets. This is not a triumphalistic story about Christians and Jews. This is a self-critical story about what it means to be holy.
You and I live in a world where increasing numbers of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When people ask me what I think of those people, I often respond that I’m religious but not particularly spiritual. What I mean is that I find the worshipping life of the church and its rituals a deeply satisfying way to be open to the presence of God. I do not now or ever want to imagine myself walking on the beach with Jesus. But the older I get the more I have to acknowledge that the church I love speaks decreasingly to the men, women, and children of the world I live in. It’s not that those people don’t want to love and follow God as I do. It’s that the system, the structure I serve no longer speaks of God to them in language they understand. The ritual we observe this morning is for them something beautiful but opaque, sung and spoken in a kind of code.
To use the terms of the parable, the action has moved from the invited guests (the Pharisees, the respectable Episcopalians) to the people in the street (the gentiles, the SBNRs). The question for you and me church-goers is, are we going to follow God out into the streets, or are we going to insist on our own priority as the originally-invited guests? Are we going to find ways to speak about and worship God that are coherent with the language and idioms of the twenty-first century, or are we going to persist in practices that speak to us but nobody else? Is church a living, evolving practice or a seemingly endless Civil War re-enactment?
Again, I speak as someone whose roots are Pharisaic and Episcopalian. I love what we do and how we do it. But I do note with some fear the nationally and internationally and even locally declining numbers of church membership, attendance, and giving. Nevertheless, I am strangely comforted by the last bit of today’s parable, the part that people find puzzling and preachers don’t usually talk about. One of the street people shows up to the wedding not wearing the proper garment. The king asks, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” and has him thrown out. Isn’t this a story about God’s inclusive love? How did it turn into a tale about many being called but few being chosen? This is parabolic whiplash!
Back to the wedding stories: many years ago I did a wedding at a banquet hall. When I arrived, most of the guests (and the wedding party itself) were already drunk. As I tried to lead the assembly through the Prayer Book marriage service, I kept being interrupted by wedding guests making jokes and catcalls and salacious remarks from the seats. Because of my affection for the bride and groom, I persevered and got through it, but in that moment I realized that there are times in life when the decorum appropriate to the situation matters. We should try to make Christianity relevant and accessible to the world outside our doors. But we should not be Romantic about those who stay home on Sundays. Many of them don’t come because they’ve been alienated or wounded by the so-called respectable people. Many of them stay home because they can’t be bothered. To the alienated and wounded, you and I in here need to repent and change. But some of them don’t come because they wouldn’t come anyway. Like the man in the wrong garment at the wedding, they don’t really care. We need to wish them well and get on with following Jesus.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” God invites everyone to the party. God invites us as we are to become who God made us to be. God loves us both unconditionally and critically. The invitation is not to insider status but to a transformative process. As we feast at this banquet, we find ourselves over time renewed and changed into the image of the one who invites us here. Let us embrace that one, each other, and the world in the work of giving thanks for the love that holds us and empowers us to be God’s people. Amen.