Sunday, April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35 and 1 Peter 1:17-23
© Stacey Steck
The strangest thing happened to me this weekend as I was working on my sermon. As I was reading the passage from 1 Peter, a word stood out for me, the word “deeply,” where Peter says, “love one another deeply from the heart.” And the phrase “love one another deeply” reminded me of the title of a movie I had seen a long time ago called “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” It’s a story about a woman so grieved by the death of her husband that he must come back from the grave and drive her to dislike him enough so she no longer needs him as she once did. He “moves in” so she can “move on,” intentionally making such a nuisance of himself that he loses his luster in her eyes. He loved her “Truly, Madly, Deeply” enough, even in death, to make her despise him, to let go of him, so she could live again. But remembering this tearjerker of a movie is not the weird thing that happened. What happened was this: that I looked it up on the Internet to remind myself who its actors were and found several comparisons, mostly favorably mind you, to the vastly more popular Hollywood film of the same period called “Ghost,” also about a dead man who remains in his beloved’s life beyond the grave. Now, just as I was reading how “Truly, Madly, Deeply” was a much better film which portrayed love more authentically than “Ghost,” I heard from the other room an unexpected noise. No it was not a ghost, but rather music coming from the television I had left turned on. So I went to turn it off but first decided to see what was playing, and lo and behold, it was the movie “Ghost”!, a movie which, for all its hype, I had never seen. So naturally, I had to watch it to see why this divine incidence – that’s what I call coincidence – to see why this divine incidence had occurred. And so I watched the whole movie. And then I wracked my brain to figure out what I was supposed to take from this divine incidence. And this is what I learned – pay attention now: I learned that “Truly, Madly, Deeply” is indeed a much better film!
Last Sunday, we heard about the Apostle Thomas and his need to touch the wounds in Jesus hands and side. He wanted to make sure Jesus wasn’t a ghost, that he was truly raised from the dead and was not just an apparition of him as they had known him before. He wanted physical proof of the things his companions had told him. In movies where there is a ghost, there is always a scene where someone tries to punch a ghost and their hand goes right through. Thomas didn’t feel the need to punch Jesus, but he did want to touch him. This Sunday, we hear about two of Jesus’ disciples for whom Jesus may as well have been a ghost since they don’t recognize him. On the road to Emmaus they travel along and converse with him, but not until Jesus breaks bread with them do they recognize the man in their midst. This story tells us too, however, that Jesus was once again among the disciples in the flesh, for a ghost cannot break a loaf of bread in half. It is not that Luke necessarily wants to point out that Jesus was not a ghost, but he does want to share that a very real human being was among them. The resurrection really happened; it was neither chance nor some kind of divine slight of hand.
As I mentioned last week, the Lectionary readings that follow Easter try to unpack the resurrection, to explain for those of us who are a little dense just what it all means. Last week we learned how important relationships are for the abundant life Jesus proclaimed, how those relationship keep us healthier in mind, body, and spirit than we would be without them. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s proclamation that our relationship with Jesus is not over because he was crucified, but that in fact it is really just beginning because he was raised from the dead. “Peace, be with you,” he said, and their hearts were at ease. And the theme of relationship continues in this week’s readings, as Jesus breaks bread with the two men who could not recognize him, and sets their hearts on fire. And as the Apostle Peter, a few decades later in his letter, is still reminding his flock of what Jesus’ resurrection was all about: blessing, gladness, and indescribable and glorious joy he tries to describe in this first chapter. That our joy may be complete, God did the unimaginable, for our sakes, he says. Imagine that. Jesus “was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.” If that sounds like good news to you now, imagine how great that news was to Peter’s friends who were suffering some pretty severe persecution at the time. So he is sharing with them the reason for the resurrection and we learn in this morning’s reading that it was precisely what happened at the hands of others, of ungodly persons, that makes our faith possible. As sadly ironic as it is, we find our joy in the death of a “lamb without defect or blemish.” Our joy is bought with the blood of Christ, and through him, Peter tells his suffering people, “through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” The unpacking of the resurrection continues. We can add faith and hope to joy as motives for God’s amazing gift.
I spoke earlier of the “divine incidence” that led me to waste an hour and a half watching a lame movie with really bad special effects, the significance of which I am truly still pondering. What I did come to realize in the end is that what my strange experience revealed was that it is divine incidence itself that should be proclaimed, that there is no coincidence where the death and resurrection of Christ are concerned, only that Christ “was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages” for our sakes. Linguistically speaking coincidence is just that: a co-incidence, two things happening at the same time, “incidences together,” to be more faithful to the Latin roots of the word. We use the word coincidence to describe our brushes with randomness that seem almost too related for them to be random. I once met a schoolmate from Washington D.C. on the steps of Westminster Abbey in London. Neither of us knew the other would be traveling. I met another classmate from Pittsburgh Seminary in a small church in Whitefish, Montana. We hadn’t spoken since graduation three years earlier. You have your stories too, I’m sure. Meeting people we know in unexpected places is a common phenomenon that most people call coincidences. We say it is a “small world.” But I prefer to say it is God’s world and that they are divine incidences, the meaning of which may not always be clear, but hey, Jesus was destined from the foundation of the world but revealed only at the end of the age, so God has a track record of keeping things hidden from us until just the right moment. Just ask the guys on the road to Emmaus.
Peter is no believer either in coincidence, but rather points out God’s hand in our salvation. Neither the death nor the resurrection of Jesus were random events, but divine incidences with divine purpose and timing. We may not know why God chose to bring about our salvation in this way, with God’s own son being born in a manger, dying on a cross, being laid in a tomb, and being resurrected three days later, but that is the way it happened. I’m a great defender of God’s sovereignty and would protect God’s right to save us in whatever form God chose. I don’t subscribe to the notion that Jesus had to come and die for us to live. I don’t believe that is the only way God could have done it. But I do subscribe to the idea that God did indeed choose to do it that way, even if it doesn’t make complete sense to my post-modern ears and sensibilities. It is not coincidence then that Jesus is described as “a lamb without defect or blemish” like the Passover lamb of the Jewish tradition, but divine incidence that he was without defect or blemish. It is not coincidence that Jesus’ blood is the described as the currency of our redemption, echoing the same way that blood was used in Old Testament sacrifices, but divine incidence that Jesus’ blood was of such value in God’s eyes that it could be traded for an eternity’s worth of souls. It is not coincidence that we are called to love one another “truly, madly, deeply” because that is how true love should be, but divine incidence because that is how God loved us.
It is in this direction that Peter moves, from God’s acts to our own, from God’s incidences of love to our own. “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth,” the truth being God’s acts of love through Christ, “Now that you have purified your souls so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” Coincidence is random. Divine incidence is intentional. Coincidence is two happenings being in the same place at the same time. Divine incidence is making sure those two things are at the same place at the same time. Peter doesn’t just say, “Love one another.” He says “Love one another deeply from the heart,” a love that suggests the divine intentionality played out through human effort. Loving deeply from the heart means that we make sure we are in the right place at the right time to love, to show the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. That witness is too important to leave to the randomness of coincidence. Peter is suggesting, I think, that we make God’s incidences our own, that through our rebirth of imperishable seed, we can bring love to the world as God did in Jesus Christ. Others might perceive our acts of divine incidence as coincidence, of the random chance of our being in the right place at the right moment to be of love or service, but there is nothing we can do about their lack of recognition. We are called to love deeply from the heart even without a reward, an expression of thanks, or the recognition that what we did we did because we love Jesus Christ. We are called to love deeply from the heart even if it might hurt our hearts, as it did to that ghost who tried to make his wife hate him. It’s the right kind of love even if it doesn’t feel like it, to us or to those we love truly, madly, and deeply. But maybe a little later on, they’ll recognize that God was present, that the love, faith, service, and patient endurance of Christ, or the church at Thyatira, were in their midst, even if they didn’t recognize it until the breaking of the bread. May God help us to love so truly, madly, deeply from the heart, so that one day, all the world may know of God’s incidences in Christ Jesus and experience the indescribable joy of a relationship with him. Amen.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
© Stacey Steck
In the middle of the night, or maybe it was in broad daylight, nobody knows for sure, a tomb went from filled to empty. Sometime between Friday evening and Sunday dawn, God did something as amazing and unobserved as the very creation of the world itself. Matthew tells us there were security guards posted at the tomb, guards that were still there even when the two Marys arrived to pay their respects on Sunday morning. But they didn’t see anything. And so, somehow, into the darkness of that sealed, guarded, sacred tomb, flowed spirit and light and life, the very spirit and light and life that God used to bring all of this world into being the first time, and then in that secret moment, whenever it was, into the fullness of being. A creation. A resurrection. A Christ present for both occasions.
If it’s true that the guards didn’t see or hear a thing that would tip them off that something was happening, we have to conclude that the resurrection was a silent affair, like the wind, like our breath, like the murmurings of our hearts. There is that earthquake Matthew records, but you see the earthquake doesn’t happen at the moment of the resurrection, but when the angel arrives to roll back the stone that sealed the tomb. The resurrection is a fact by that time, so the earthquake is really just a trumpet’s blast, announcing God’s glorious deed, a loud exclamation point on the word of life God spoke in silence. I’m struck by that contrast between the silence of the resurrection and the sound of the earthquake, the imperceptible movement of heaven and the violent shaking of the earth. We might imagine it would be the reverse, that an explosive sound would accompany an explosive deed, with the silence of reverent awe following. But no, the resurrection of Jesus Christ took place more like the way our lives in Christ unfold, a silent, imperceptible movement of heaven followed by the shaking of our foundations as we realize just what has happened to us.
No, the guards didn’t see or hear a thing. Maybe it happened while they were eating lunch. Maybe it happened while they were drinking. Maybe it happened while they were sleeping. So much happens while we’re sleeping, doesn’t it? Crocuses and daffodils, our flowers that signal spring is here, break through after their long winter’s sleep while we are sleeping and we find their beauty suddenly, unexpectedly, in the morning. Dreams stir the imagination, and plant seeds for action, while we are sleeping. Parents are praying, while children are sleeping. The stars move in their courses, while we are sleeping. On the other side of the world, children are born, and their elders pass away, all while we are sleeping. So much happens beyond our ability to perceive it, whether we are literally asleep or just sleepwalking through life. And God is in the midst of it all.
Maybe you remember that romantic comedy from a few years ago that starred Sandra Bullock, called “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s about a single woman who would fantasize about a relationship with a certain man who passed by her workplace every day. Well, one day, she has the chance to actually meet him when she saves his life following an accident. When she accompanies him to the hospital to check on him, the man’s family assumes she is his girlfriend whom they’ve never met. Of course, the man himself is in no position to confirm or deny this fact since he is in a coma, and she can’t bring herself to disappoint the family who thinks that she needs to be by their loved one’s side. And so the farce begins. Of course, what happens is that she ends up falling in love not just with the injured man’s brother, but with his whole crazy family too. And all of this has taken place, the man learns when he wakes up, “while you were sleeping.”
It’s a cute premise for a movie, but it’s also true in our lives, that amazing changes take place while we are busy doing other things like studying or working or even brushing our teeth. I didn’t plan to become a pastor when I started college, but as I made my way through school, the opportunities that appeared before me had less to do with my formal studies, and more to do with leading me, and others, to recognize in myself things I hadn’t seen before. Looking back, I see how I really ended up majoring in Habitat for Humanity rather than the Communications that appears on my official transcript, but it didn’t really occur to me until after it was all over. Silently, I was being prepared for communicating in a completely different way than I had imagined, but only when the earthquake struck, did I realize what had been happening to me. That earthquake was the response to a letter I had written about a matter of interest to the campus ministry community. Someone I admired wrote back complimenting me on my ability to present the difficult news I had shared in my letter. And as I read what he had written to me, I realized that God had been preparing me for something that I was not preparing for myself. While I did pretty well in my filmmaking classes, I did even better in becoming myself, and who God wanted me to be. And I knew then that I would never win that Oscar for Best Director I had always dreamed about.
In the Bible, sleep is a metaphor for death. We have to be careful how we use that metaphor, especially around children, but I think it can be a useful one. You see, when we talk about resurrection, we can also talk about waking up from our sleeping, coming back to life, or coming into new life. Christ’s resurrection wakes us up. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” but he could also have written, that “while we were yet sleeping, Christ died for us.” Yes, we were asleep in our sin, dead in our sin, and yet the spirit and light and life of God was in that tomb of ours bringing us to life once again, unbeknownst to us, to those guarding us in our sin, perhaps even to those who were hoping and praying that we would wake up and join the living, the truly living. While we were sleeping, God was doing amazing things!
Maybe you remember that old story of a shoemaker and his wife, who had become quite poor through no fault of their own. They were down to their last meal and their last bit of leather. Before bed, the shoemaker carefully cut the leather so that he might sew it the next morning and try to make a sale. They went to bed committing their cares to God and looking forward to the next day. When they awoke, the shoemaker went into his shop surprised to find the leather gone, but a beautifully made pair of shoes in its place. Perplexed but thankful, he placed them in the window of his shop and hoped for the best. Well, along came a rich man who was so enamored of the shoes that he bought them on the spot, and even paid extra because they were of such fine quality. The purchase was enough for the shoemaker to buy two shoes’ worth of leather, and so he did, and went to bed once again, leaving his work ready for the next day. Of course, the same thing happened while he was sleeping, and he found two fine pairs of shoes on his workbench, the sale of which allowed him to buy four shoes’ worth of leather, and so it went for many days.
Near Christmas, curiosity and gratitude got the best of the couple and they wanted to find out who was helping them, and so they stayed up late one night hiding in a closet and learned that it was a pair of elves who came silently in the night, did their fine work, and left before dawn. And they decided that as a gift of gratitude, they would make a set of fine clothes and shoes for the elves, which they did, and hid themselves to see what would happen. Well, the elves came as usual, and seeing the clothes, dressed themselves as fast as they could, and began to dance and sing, “Now, we are boys so fine to see. Why should we any longer cobblers be?” And they danced away out the door and never returned, leaving the shoemaker and his wife back on their feet for the rest of their lives.
And so it is with us, perhaps, that while we are sleeping God’s favor finds us unexpectedly, undeservedly. And then one day we discover the nature of our mischief-making God who has put us on our feet and opened up our future for us. It’s the grace that found its way silently into Jesus’ tomb and raised him from the dead. It’s the grace that finds its way into our sleepy hearts and minds and wakes us up. It’s the grace that slips past every stone and every security guard to transform our lives while we are sleeping, that we may awake to find a new day full of hope and justice, and love. It’s the grace that Helen Keller described when she said, “The most beautiful things of the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
This Easter, may you feel with your heart the earthquake that reveals the new life that the silent resurrection of Jesus Christ has brought into your life, while you were sleeping. Amen.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
© Stacey Steck
A large crowd was gathered that day, 8000 by some count and still more were arriving. The early arrivals had packed in up front. Excitement was building, and the hum of the crowd grew. Many had come a long way and were anxious to see the curious attraction. Local security officials were concerned about the size and nature of the crowd, and had tried to put measures in place to avoid a disturbance, but they were ill-prepared for what took place next. As long-hoped-for words reached their ears, the crowd, as one, surged forward, but there was no room for them all. Yet those in the back could not see what was happening up front and so in their excitement, they pushed even harder to get up front. And when people began to fall, the crowd simply surged forward on top on them, trampling them underfoot, an obstacle below the same as an obstacle ahead of them. When it was all over, eleven people were dead of asphyxia, and another 23 lay injured. But the show went on.
And what were the words that spurred the crowd on, that drove them into such a frenzy that they lost all control of their faculties? Were those words, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”? or “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!”? Was it, “There his is! There’s Jesus!”? Not exactly. They were more like “The Who! The concert is starting!” although it could have been “Welcome to Walmart” too. No, the event in question was not Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but a concert by the British rock band, The Who, in 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio at which some of the tightly packed general admission crowd waiting at the doors mistook the band’s sound check for the beginning of the show, and began their stampede, thinking nothing of their fellow concertgoers who were unfortunate enough to fall to the floor. Yes, we’ll trample each other to death for a front row seat, or a fifty percent discount on Black Friday. All you have to do is say a few magic words, and our instincts will do the rest.
To be fair, some of the people in these cases of death by trampling were probably just trying to save their own lives, to make sure they didn’t end up on the bottom of the pile. What choice did they have but to continue running? But most probably believed that it was just survival of the fittest, that if you can’t run with the big dogs, you’d better stay home. After a crowd shouting “push the doors in” did just that at a Walmart one Black Friday and trampled to death a Walmart employee, when told that “they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘But I've been in line since Friday morning!’ ” and just kept on shopping. No such tragedy or attitude was reported when Jesus entered Jerusalem, but the situation could have gotten out of hand. As it is, later in the week, the darker side of the crowd mentality took over and the cheers of the first Palm Sunday turned into the jeers of the first Black Friday, and Jesus was the one trampled to death by a miscarriage of justice.
Given the cries of Hosanna that accompanied his entrance into Jerusalem, it is clear that some in the city, maybe even many, believed that their King had finally arrived. Their shouts came from Psalms used for the entrance of the kings as did the practice of spreading cloaks or branches for the king to ride in upon. They clearly had high hopes for a brighter future under a new regime. But why would this have been so important for them? They had a “king” in Caesar. He was about as powerful as they come, with armies the likes of which good old King David could never have mustered. There was peace for the first time in a long time, even if it was peace that came with the price of a military occupation. Sure, taxes were high, and it wasn’t exactly a democracy, but hey, things were stable. Why did they need a King riding in on a donkey? Well, maybe it’s because they felt like the donkey.
Maybe you remember the classic Palm Sunday poem by G.K. Chesterton called “The Donkey.” It goes like this:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Yes, this people needed a king who cared about them. This crowd needed Jesus. They needed someone who could take their curse away, give them hope, someone to treat them not like the misfit donkeys of the world but as the beautiful and noble sons and daughters of Adam they were created to be. They needed for a lifetime the dignity and the compassion and the courage Jesus showed for those three short years he spent with them. It is no wonder they were as excited as teenagers headed to a rock concert. If they’d started a stampede to get close to him, you couldn’t have blamed them. And so they did what they had always done. They cried loud hosannas and they threw their cloaks upon the road in front of him, and hoped that Jesus would trample the Romans who had been trampling on them. The only problem was that Jesus came not to trample, but to be trampled.
In one way or another, we are all just as wretched and pathetic as that donkey. If it is not poverty or disease or domestic abuse or the lack of an education, it’s having too high an opinion of ourselves, or being judgmental or selfish or wasteful. We are either the Pharisee or the tax collector. Remember that parable Jesus told? “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ And Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We are all caught up in the cycle of sin the prophet Amos described when we prophesied, “Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes--they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted.’ ” We’re all donkeys. Some of us are just already aware that we are.
Theologically, we can affirm that God loves the donkey just as much any animal we consider from our human point of view to be either lovelier or uglier, but we don’t always think about ourselves the way that our Creator does. Our self-image doesn’t match the divine image. We either think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, we trample others or we get trampled, all while we spend our lives seeking or waiting for that one fleeting hour in which that donkey took delight, when its feet trod upon something soft and it felt at last worthy.
Back in the sixth century, Saint Andrew, the Bishop of Crete, offered a provocative Palm Sunday image that still illuninates today. He said, “Come then, let us run with Jesus as he presses on to his passion. Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet him, not scattering olive branches or garments or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose. So we may welcome the Word as he comes, may God who cannot be contained within any bounds, be contained within us. So it is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, or with the whole Christ…so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.”
Normally, we are the ones doing the trampling under foot, whether from greed or from fear. But as followers of Christ, we are called to be the ones trampled, not in the sense of just allowing ourselves to be walked on so others can do whatever they want, but so that on our backs, others might be lifted up. Isn’t this what Jesus did for us? Isn’t this what Gandhi and King and so many others in the non-violence movement did for others? Isn’t this what those who care for young children or parents with Alzheimer’s do for others? Isn’t this what we can do for others when we see them struggling with depression or doubt or even hubris or pride? Christ came for the wretched of every kind, not that they might endure their whole lives for that donkey’s “One far fierce hour and sweet,” but that they might have abundant life, divine life. And if we can, by laying ourselves down as Christ laid himself down, give the world’s donkeys something soft to walk upon, not just for one sweet hour, but for a season, or better yet a lifetime, then we will have followed Jesus not only into Jerusalem, but to the cross and on to resurrection and glory. That’s our task this Holy Week, to remember how we have trampled others, to give thanks for the one willing to be trampled for our sakes, and to lay down not only our cloaks for the world, but our very lives. Amen.
Sunday, April 02, 2017
© Stacey Steck
Preacher’s Note: At several points during the sermon, a 15 second clip of “thrash metal” music is played. The limits of Thyatira’s technological prowess prevent us from embedding the music (for which your ears will thank us!). However, if you would like to check it out, the song is called Gnashing of Teeth by the band For the Suffering.
“Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” Well, that’s an uplifting bit of prose from Jesus, now isn’t it? Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Did you ever wonder what the gnashing of teeth really sounds like? What is gnashing anyway? Well, I’ve done some research into the matter and have found a very old recording that I think is exactly what Jesus had in mind. It comes from the Dead Sea MP3 Uncomfortable collection. Have listen. Well, I don’t know about you, but if there is a better reason to repent and follow Jesus than to avoid listening to that for all eternity, I’m not sure what it is!
That little foray into the biblical soundscape comes to us courtesy of a little-known thrash metal band called “For the Suffering,” although perhaps they should think about changing their name to “Causing the Suffering.” Thrash metal is a musical genre that certainly lends itself to a consideration of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” since the principal subject matter of thrash metal songs revolves around such things as “isolation, alienation, corruption, injustice, addiction, suicide, murder, warfare, and other maladies that afflict the individual and society.” I don’t know anything more about that little-known band called “For the Suffering” except that those fifteen uncomfortable seconds of their music we played sounds like what I imagine Hell to be. But for those of you who might be wondering if there is any such thing as a well-known thrash metal band, you have obviously never heard of Thrash metal’s “Big Four,” namely Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, names which will give you an idea of what the poorly dressed wedding guest in the parable was in for, once he was cast out into the “outer darkness.”
This morning’s parable from Matthew is really two parables in one, the first part detailing the struggles of a king to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding, and the second part dealing with the nature of the guests who finally show up. Not all of Jesus’ parables are meant to be interpreted allegorically, but this one probably is, just as the one right before it, in which some tenant farmers would not give the landowner what he was due, and then killed his slaves and his son, and were ultimately destined to be replaced by new tenants who would “produce the fruits of the Kingdom.” In both of these parables, the violent tenants or the wedding guests who decided they had better things to do are meant to represent the Jewish leadership of the time, those who had rejected those whom God, the landowner or the king, had sent to them to seek their righteousness and respect. In both of these parables, the followers of Jesus are represented by the new tenants and the new wedding guests invited from off the street, both groups being unexpectedly gathered in to receive a good fortune they could hardly have imagined. The kingdom of God, Jesus is saying, is too valuable to be left in the hands of people who do not care for it properly, and so the change is made. On the surface, these parables seem to be a strong poke in the ribs to the Pharisees in the last week of Jesus’ life, a condemnation of their way of life, and a prediction of what will happen to them. Out with the old, and in with the new. An old order dying away, replaced by a new order. Indeed, after both parables are told, we learn that the Pharisees plot to do Jesus in, feeling threatened by his denunciations, an indication of what they felt was at stake.
Digging a little deeper, however, we see that the key to understanding the story is not just that the old order has been replaced, but that the new order must be constantly vigilant if it is not to suffer the same fate. You see, Matthew’s Gospel was not written to Pharisees, to prove to them the error of their ways, to try to convince them to come over to Jesus’ side. In fact, the Pharisees had already suffered a terrible fate when the city of Jerusalem was left in ruins in the year 70, and they were sent scattered like sheep throughout the Roman Empire. By the time Matthew writes his Gospel, the Pharisees are not the powerhouse they once were, but rather one sect of Jews among others, including the ones who called themselves Christians. And Matthew’s Gospel is written to that group of Jews who called themselves Christians, as an exhortation to continued faithfulness, and an explanation of sorts of what happened along the way, with a little bit of gloating over the Pharisees thrown in for good measure. They are the guests who were gathered in for the wedding feast of the son. But they are also those from whom one came to the wedding dressed in the wrong clothes, and who left it to the sound of the gnashing of teeth. [Play clip from “For the Suffering”] Yes, it is the final part of this morning’s parable that really matters, all the way at the end of a bunch of parables that are setting up Matthew’s hearers for some self-congratulatory rejoicing— “Yes, we are the champions! The Pharisees have been defeated! We are the new chosen ones!”— only to rein them in with the most sobering of warnings: that they too run the risk of the kind of careless treatment of the kingdom that led to the Pharisee’s dismissal from that kingdom, and the ruin of their city. Those of you who remember the ending of George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, will remember the caution of its final words, as the pigs who had led the farmyard rebellion had slowly but surely recreated what they had overthrown in the first place: “No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The new order had become the old order.
And so we see the purpose of the rather unpleasant conclusion of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” — to remind the church that although they were welcomed to the party, there are certain fundamental requirements for staying at the party. Please don’t get hung up on how a poor guy from the street, invited to the wedding feast of the King’s son at the last moment, is supposed to come up with a wedding robe. This parable is an allegory, not an opportunity for an analysis of first century wedding customs. This parable, or rather the three parables combined, do to the early church what Jesus always did to his opponents; he drew them in to the point of no return, and then twisted the story to convict them of their own self-righteousness. And like he often did to the Pharisees, Jesus does it to the disciples by hooking them on their new place at the party, before reminding them of the proper behavior of the guests. [Play clip from “For the Suffering”]
Despite the non-violent teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and a whole host of wonderful images of grace, there are eight stories or parables like this morning’s, also in Matthew, that have rather violent and disturbing endings. The tenants are put to a horrible death, a city is burned and its inhabitants murdered, a man is bound and cast into the outer darkness, and God seems to be behind it all. Jesus was clearly not a believer in 100% positive reinforcement for behavior modification. He was not above instilling a little fear into people about things that really mattered. He carried a stick as well as a carrot. He trotted out language like “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as one among many of his means of conditioning responses to the Gospel message. [Play clip from “For the Suffering”] Perhaps you remember Pavlov’s famous dogs, participants in “The original and most famous example of classical conditioning...During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, [the Russian scientist] Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of meat…the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. Pavlov called these psychic secretions. From this observation he predicted that, if a particular stimulus in the dog’s surroundings was present when the dog was presented with meat, then this stimulus would become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell.” [Play clip from “For the Suffering”]
If that makes Jesus sound like a sadistic mad scientist, so be it, but don’t forget, he had a little experience dealing with human beings throughout the millennia, and just being nice didn’t work very often. This method is not, of course, his only method, or even his preferred method for trying to keep us on the straight and narrow. There are far, far more examples of Jesus simply exhorting us positively to behave well toward one another than there are these implicit threats, but you can’t simply ignore the threats that are there because you don’t like the sound of them. It is true that most people, including myself, do not respond well to negative reinforcement or conditioning. Nevertheless, my mother is quite sure that the reason I have never used drugs is because she scared the living daylights out of me, and that I never cross the street without looking both ways because she yanked me by the arm whenever I stepped out into the street without taking her hand first. Yes, there are times when it is good to be reminded about such things as “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” lest we experience them for real instead of just through a threat, or fifteen seconds of thrash metal. [Play clip from “For the Suffering”]
Please do not misunderstand me. The church is not called to evangelize with threats and thrash metal. But it is called to take seriously the reality that we believers often take for granted the love under which we have been invited to live and with which we are called to bring God’s message. Sometimes it takes both positive and negative messages, multiple ways of conditioning ourselves to never take those promises for granted. There is a time to remind people to invite others to church, and to be part of a wonderful fellowship of people who love and care for one another and who serve their community. But there is also a time to remind people that the church is always one generation from extinction, that we can never take the faith of our children for granted. There is a time to extol the virtues of daily Bible reading, of the riches of prayer, of the value of silence. But there is also a time to expect that leaders of the church know that the book of Ephesians is part of the New Testament, to call upon even the most timid among us to pray out loud, to insist that everyone has a chance to speak. There is a time for warm and fuzzy, and a time for thrash metal bands called Megadeath and Slayer.
Except for my Pavlovian attempts this morning to condition you with some really awful music to help you avoid “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” I don’t have any bombshell to drop on you other than to remind you of the wondrous gift you have received in Jesus Christ, the one whose Father, our God, has prepared an amazing feast to which we have been invited. The parable tells us that, “the King’s slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” As we come to the table once again this morning, may we be found in the dining hall among the good and well-dressed guests, because we have both embraced the opportunity of faith, and heeded the warnings of our frailty. Amen.