February 16, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Matthew 22: 1-14
A Voice to Comfort and Confront
My college adviser had a poster in her office which featured a poem you might have heard. It is attributed to Martin Niemoller, a German pastor in the Confessing Church which was the Christian movement that spoke out against the Nazis during World War II. The poem goes like this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–there was no one left to speak out
When I read this in that first week of college, I remember feeling a swell of passion and enthusiasm. “Yes exactly!” Here I am ready to go into the world and speak out for anybody oppressed. Every other week for a whole semester, I looked at that poster and took from it a charge to be a person unafraid to speak out.
Of course, the thing everybody learns: Speaking out, speaking up for people, isn’t easy at all. It comes with a cost every time. I’d still like to believe that if soldiers swept through the Quad Cities taking some and leaving others, I would be out there protesting. But we don’t need soldiers storming the street to test this.
You know how it is. You’re in the parking lot of a strip mall and you see some people harassing a person with a disability. Or you hear your downstairs neighbors fighting again. Or you’re having lunch with someone you respect who says something racist or homophobic. You didn’t choose to be in this position, but here you are. You can’t pretend you didn’t see it or you didn’t hear it, and now you know you have to do something. But what?
At some point, I’m pretty sure we all have seen something happen that is absolutely not right. I can tell you when this has happened to me, there are times when I have intervened. And oh my friends, there are times when I have not, times when my uncertainty won out and I have said nothing. It is awful. It makes a pit in my stomach; it’s like when when I lose my voice, I lose part of myself. Now that poem on the poster which used to be so inspiring is terribly indicting.
Speaking up comes with a cost every time. There’s bound to be fallout and the situation could get uglier in a heartbeat. Saying nothing comes with a cost every time. It makes an awful silence which lets the hurt and the hate keep ringing in the air.
Today it is week five in Seven Sundays of Strangers, a series of stories throughout the bible exploring what it is to be an outsider. Last week, we heard a song that tells the story of the day the people refused to sing on command. In Psalm 137, silence is the medium of protest. It functions like a privacy curtain protecting the way the songs of Zion got sung and remembered. It’s how the people claimed their identity even in captivity. Today our story also features an episode of silence, but this time it is all wrong.
This story comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus begins telling this parable to a crowd that includes the chief priests and the Pharisees who are already threatened, and furious, and looking for a way to arrest him. Even before the story begins, there is tension murmuring through the crowds. The chief priests and Pharisees get their defenses going, Whatever he’s about to say, you know he is talking about us.
Jesus begins: The kingdom of heaven is like this. A king gave a wedding banquet for his son, but when they went to gather the invited guests, the guests refused to come. Again, the king sent his slaves to go get the guests for the banquet. Come all things are ready! And the guests didn’t care. They made excuses and refused to come.
So far, this parable sounds a lot like the version we hear in the Gospel of Luke. If you’ve heard that one before, you might be ready to get to the good part. Yes, yes, the guests decline the invitation. But then the king goes into the streets and invites everyone, good and bad, rich and poor, to come to the party.
This is like that feast on the mountain in Isaiah. All the nations find a place at the table, there is rich food and well aged wine. The shroud of death is destroyed. Every tear is wiped away by the hand of God. This is a magnificent story of God’s extravagant welcome, and it may be exactly the promise of the kingdom of heaven. But it’s not what we hear today.
Back to the story in Matthew, when the guests refuse to come, things get much worse, because some of these rude guests kill the king’s slaves. So this kings does what kings do and he burns down their city, which Matthew’s audience would recognize as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem.
But the show must go on! Not even a funeral for those slaves, there’s still a wedding banquet to be had! I picture everyone covered with blood, but please straighten your hat and re-apply your lipstick. The king orders the surviving slaves to go risk their lives —invite anyone you can find so the wedding hall won’t have empty seats for the photos, see the kingdom of God is like this. Really? And we’re supposed to believe this king is like God? Yeah, I’m not so sure about that. Because then it gets worse.
The writer of Matthew adds this juicy bit of drama. When the king comes into the wedding hall to see all the guests, he spots one man who’s not wearing appropriate attire. The king approaches him and asks a very strange question, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And the man says, nothing. The king orders the man to be bound and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the moment that nobody says anything.
Fortunately for our sake, Bible scholars are quick to come to the rescue and try to mitigate the harm from this terrible parable. For one thing, it is historically unlikely that Jesus himself added this part about the king throwing out the guest. All through the Gospel of Matthew, the author is concerned about who is worthy and who is not, who meets a standard of righteousness and who falls outside the scope of acceptability. This might make sense in the context of an early Christian community trying to find its identity. But don’t mistake the agenda of the Gospel writer with the promise of the kingdom that we learn from Jesus.
Another approach to soften the blow comes from the tradition of interpreting this allegorically. In this scheme, the king represents God, and the son is Jesus. No surprise here. The wedding feast is the day of judgement, and the slaves who got killed were like the prophets who were ignored. Now the wedding guest means that we’re all invited to the great banquet of heaven, but in order to stay, we need to take responsibility to repent and respond appropriately. It’s our job to to clothe ourselves in righteousness even as we’re being gathered up off the street and whisked inside to fill the seats. Hmmm…
I respect these attempts to try to make sense of this story and why it was told. But I gotta tell you, this is a story that provokes me to want to jump into the scene and get involved. Kind of like watching a scary movie and yelling at your TV, “No don’t go in there! He’s got a knife!” I mean, just imagine if you were at this wedding feast, and you witness the whole incident with the king and the man he arrests.
Because I think if we were there, we would not allow silence to ring with hate and hurt. Some of us would go up and talk to that king. We would say to his staff, “Is this really what you mean to do?” We would protest with the man being thrown out, and we would go with him to the outer darkness and offer him encouragement. You are a people who know exactly how to go up to those who have been cast out and say, “I saw what happened. Here let me get you some help.” This is what you do.
The good news is this. If we have the impulse to go and speak a word of comfort to those who are gnashing their teeth, we also have the courage to go find the king and confront him by speaking the truth in love. “Come on King, really. What are you doing?” Our potential to comfort and to confront comes from the same source; you can do one, you can do the other. This impetus comes from the love of Christ.
I have a friend who had just begun serving as an associate pastor at a church in Florida. Right away when she arrived, there was a flurry of complaining because she had the nerve to wear open toed shoes. (Remember it’s Florida!) If it were me, I can imagine dismissing this as silly church gossip. I might easily have chosen to stay silent.
But that’s not what her senior pastor did. He preached on it! He called out this complaining from the pulpit and explained that this pastor’s choice in shoes reflects her authenticity that is affirmed and loved by God. Now I think the way he spoke up for her is pretty gutsy, but it gets even better. That afternoon was her service of installation, and this part is so Church of Peace. Do you know the women of this church showed up wearing open toed shoes. The kingdom of heaven is like this.
Sometimes we see things happen that are not right at all. As the church we are called to speak right into that terrible silence— to go confront the king, to go comfort the ones who are weeping in the dark. I’m pretty sure that’s where we’ll find Jesus.
In these days of visioning, we’re asking the question, who are the people for whom we need to speak up? Maybe it’s veterans coming back from Afghanistan, or teenagers at The Place2B, or immigrant families, or people locked. If you have ideas, please do not keep them to yourself. I invite you to send me an email, leave me a note in the offering plate, post it on facebook. This is a conversation to get going because you can be sure, we are not made to stay quiet. Amen.