A sermon on Exodus 32:1-6,15-20,30-34; Matthew 22:1-14
Preached on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 29 October 2017
At Mariners’ Church of Detroit
By Fr. Jeffrey Hubbard
Weddings – almost always – are simply joyous celebrations. Family and friends gathered together to celebrate love, to wish a man and a woman bon voyage as they embark on their grand adventure as husband and wife. There’s pageantry and ceremony, food and dancing, and of course, cake. What’s not to like? How could this not be fun? But every now and then, you hear a story of a wedding gone wrong. It seems to happen more in movies than in real life, but sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. There are the stories of the bride leaving the groom at the altar, her cold feet carrying her away; to where, she may not know, just as long as it’s not down that aisle. Sometimes, even in real life, weddings can go awry.
But this story that Jesus tells makes all the other stories of weddings gone wrong seem tame by comparison. This story Jesus tells is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting and as strange as a Stanley Kubrick film. It starts normally enough. The king’s son is getting married, so the king sends out his servants to call the guests to the wedding. You’d think this would be an honor and they’d be excited; after all, this is a royal wedding. I wasn’t born yet when it happened, but I’m told the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana was quite the event, at the time. It was watched on TV around the world by seven hundred fifty million people. Could you imagine being invited and turning down that invitation? This is exactly what the guests in the parable we’ve heard this morning did. They turned down the invitation and decided not to show up to the royal wedding. They made excuses and brushed aside the invitation. So the king sends out his servants a second time, same results… that’s odd, but, okay…
So he sends them out another time, and here’s where it gets really weird: the people who are invited don’t just decline the invitation, they kill the king’s servants. This response would be akin to getting a wedding invitation in the mail, and rather than simply checking the “decline” box, and sending back the RSVP card, deciding to shoot the mailman instead. The king, in response, destroys those that murdered his servants, and burned up their city. At this point, we’ve definitely taken a sharp turn towards the bizarre, but Jesus doesn’t stop there.
The king still needs guests for the wedding, so he sends out his servants yet again. Only this time, they’re not working from the narrowed-down, carefully curated list of invitees, their marching orders are to invite someone, anyone will do, it doesn’t even matter if they’re bad or good, the king just wanted to fill up the chairs so the place wasn’t empty. Coming in to meet this no doubt motley crew of hastily gathered guests, the king notices a man not properly dressed for the occasion. So the king confronts him and the man is speechless. The king summons his servants and the man is kicked out, but not without one final flourish of high drama. This man was not only kicked out, but the king says, “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I can’t help but wonder what this guy wore that was so offensive to the king that he put his expulsion in terms of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I mean, did he show up in a tuxedo t-shirt? Or his bathrobe?
And what was the king expecting, anyways? The final invitation was just to a bunch of random Joes off the street. Imagine the king’s servants, wandering up and down Woodward. “Hey, come to this wedding.” For all we know, this man could’ve been headed to the gym when he got the invite, and didn’t have time to go home and change. Or he could’ve been on the way back from the Lions game, wearing his Matt Stafford jersey. Or he could’ve even been homeless, and not even had anything at all he could’ve worn to the wedding, even if he had time to change.
I really kind of feel sorry for the guy. I mean, can you really blame him? We don’t go through life dressed in our Sunday best, all the time. Some days we put on jeans. But what if out of the blue, someone approaches us at the grocery store, tells us about a great party, and we’re invited. “Sounds like it’ll be lovely, when is it? Oh, right now?” So rather than miss out, maybe we show up and make do, thinking surely no one will notice… only to be called out and kicked out by our host. And not only do we have to leave but since we had the nerve to show up to this party, where we know no one, at the last minute, we’re promised that weeping and gnashing of teeth is what awaits us. Can you imagine?
I wonder how the rest of the evening unfolded after that. We don’t know, the story ends there, quite abruptly. Jesus leaves it at that and we’re left, seemingly in the dark like the guest in the wrong clothes, trying to make sense of this strange tale Jesus has just told. And how do we begin to make sense of that?
After many of his parables, Jesus, being the mysterious fellow that he is, simply leaves it at that, leaves it to us, to try and make sense of what he’s just said. A couple times, however, Jesus actually tells us the point of the parable. This is one of those times. For as strange a tale as this, with its unexpected twists and turns, its point is actually straightforward and simple, and Jesus tells us what it is in verse fourteen. “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
That’s a simple and straightforward statement, but it’s actually as enigmatic as the parable is strange and surreal, and invites as many questions.
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” When the possible outcomes are either enjoying a lovely party, or being in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, that’s a distinction worth exploring. When Jesus says “many,” and “few,” how many and how few are we talking? What’s the scope of this statement? Is it universal? Is Jesus talking about everyone, at all times, here, or is it just descriptive of the Jewish religious leaders at the time, who Jesus was addressing when he told this parable? What does it mean, specifically, to be called, and what does it mean to be chosen? And most importantly, what’s the difference? If many are called, but few are chosen, that means there are two groups here, those that are called and chosen, and those that are called but not chosen. What’s the difference that puts someone into the “called and chosen” group, rather than the “called but not chosen” group? This is the important question to which we now turn. And for all the strangeness of this parable, the answer, again, is actually a straightforward one. The difference is in what the guests decided to wear to the wedding.
After all, this man, who’s confronted by the king, and who’s cast into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, part of the “called but not chosen” group, is in that position because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes, he wasn’t dressed in a wedding garment.
And so what should the badly dressed guest have warn? What would have been the right clothes to wear? This parable, of course, is metaphorical. Jesus uses this story to teach the point that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Had he simply said, “many are called, but few are chosen,” it would be easy to just nod our heads at a pithy saying, and continue along, by and large unaffected, unchanged. However, Jesus telling this strange and surreal story jars us out of concern for our farm, or for our business, the day-to-day things that prevented the original invitees in the parable from even attending the wedding to begin with. Jesus telling this strange and surreal tale helps us to consider what’s really at stake here, at a depth we wouldn’t reach had he simply said “many are called, but few are chosen,” without also telling this parable.
Since this story is a metaphor, and since the wedding garment that the guest should have worn is the difference between being called and chosen, or being called and not chosen, many throughout the history of the Church have, naturally, wondered, what is the garment a metaphor for? Some have said that it’s the garment of faith in God, some that it’s the garment of righteousness. Maybe the garment is symbolic of being clothed in love, in charity leading to good deeds. Maybe the garment is symbolic of our baptism, of being clothed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. There have been whole sermons – good sermons – preached on the garment being one of these things.
But as I was studying, another passage of Scripture about clothing, another passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in chapter six, came to mind. Jesus said, “why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you?”
The important thing to discover about the wedding garment is not what it symbolizes, but where it comes from, and who provides it. God is the one who clothes us, not only physically, but in the spiritual clothing of faith, of righteousness, of love, of baptism. God is the giver of all these gifts.
Returning to the parable, historically, the king, as host of the wedding, would have provided the proper wedding garment. And so the impropriety of this guest that was thrown out of the wedding and into darkness wasn’t that he didn’t have the right clothes, or that he failed to dress in them before he arrived, it’s that he rejected the garment that was provided for him by the king, and tried to go to the wedding on his own terms, rather than accepting the gracious, freely offered hospitality of the king, on the king’s terms.
Trying to take God and his kingdom on our own terms is nothing new, it’s also what we see the children of Israel doing in the Old Testament reading from Exodus appointed for Morning Prayer today. Growing impatient with Moses, and discontent with God, they decided to make a god as they saw fit, and had Aaron make for them an idol, a golden calf. Rather than accepting God on his own terms, they tried to make God up on their terms.
And this is still going on. One of my professors once remarked that the great heresy of American Christianity is that we think we get to make God up as we go along. I grew up in a segment of Christianity – and there is a lot of this going on today among American Christians – where there was a lot of making God up as we went along. This is part of what made me seek out the traditional, historic Christian faith, to dive into the liturgy, to embrace the sacraments. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, and seeking to follow him as closely as we can, as he continued to reveal himself in the tradition of the Church, keeps us from making God up as we go along. It’s why we worship with a historic liturgy in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It’s why we hear the words of Scripture in the beautiful and historic King James Version. It’s why we sing the classic hymns of the Church. It’s why we kneel for prayer, why we keep the rhythms of the Church calendar, and why we come to the Lord’s table week after week because all of these are acts of acceptance of God on the terms that God offers himself to us.
It’s why we do all these things: because we don’t get to make God up as we go along. And in light of all these things, of such a good gospel and a beautiful faith and a true story of the love of God as he offers himself and opens his kingdom to us, why would we want to make God up as we go along? That we don’t get to make God up as we go along means that we don’t have to figure God out on our own. We have Christ showing us the way. We have the communion of saints as our examples. We have the bread of life and the cup of salvation to nourish us for the journey. And in all of this, we are invited to rest, to cease from our striving and trying to figure it out on our own. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, famously prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our hearts, the very center of our being, the essence of who we are, were made for rest in God – not as we would have him be, but as he offers himself to us.
The invitation to not make God up as we go along, is an invitation to rest in who God reveals himself to be, rather than endlessly striving to figure God out on our own. It’s an invitation to accept God’s kingdom – not on our own terms, but on his – to accept the garment that he gives us: to be called, and to be chosen, by him.
Fr. Hubbard is a gifted priest and good friend of the Church of the Advent. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife Jodi and their daughter Juniper. We pray that this is the first of many posts from Fr. Jeff.