Stewardship Sunday #3 – The Terrible Parable and the Banquet for All: Finding Joy

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Maybe it’s time to say “hasta la vista” to reading parables only one way. Read on.

Ezra 5:1-5, 11-13, 16
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Everybody has something in their lives that annoys them and just generally gets them down.

For me, it’s technology. Technology drives me insane.

I’m so glad I’m old enough that I’m no longer commonly stereotyped as some kind of technological whiz kid just because of my age. It was never true. I’ve always known enough tricks to get me by, but devices have always screwed up on me. I’ve always been the person sitting in the coffee shop who can’t get her computer to connect while everyone else works away with perfectly functioning devices. It’s me who leans over and asks if the wifi is working while you’re just enjoying your latte. I’m sorry about that. It’s just that, while everyone else’s computer soars through cyber space with the speed and ease of a Brady-to-Edelman touchdown pass (don’t forget to pray for the Patriots), my computer is looking back at me like a twenty-one year old office assistant saying in a Valley girl voice, “Your connection was interrupted.”

Humor has always been my way of fighting back against annoying circumstances. My best friend Samuel and I take turns telling of our misfortunes in the funniest ways we can muster; the object of the game is to spin your inconvenience or misfortune into the funniest story you possibly can. We’ve gotten good at it. 

Of course, there’s a difference between a misfortune and a tragedy. Some things are decidedly not funny and cannot be made funny. These are the things that call us to shout “Too soon” to someone who makes an off color joke, or, as Parker and I say of some things, it’s “always too soon.” Some things will never be funny.

A list of things like that just keeps piling up. Mass shootings. The threat of nuclear war. Division and partisanship. Racism and white supremacy.

The much-maligned news media doesn’t help. Even the most reasonable person can’t help but wonder occasionally if any news organization of any stripe is actually out for truth or ratings. And what gets ratings in this age of Twitter? Making every story short and simple. We try to domesticate any story and make it seem simple, when truth be told, it’s anything but. There are a thousand different angles on everything, a thousand new things to consider, a thousand truths buried in a billion stories.

Are you on the verge of a panic attack? I find myself there sometimes just thinking about the sheer complexity of the world’s problems and my own.

We tell stories to try to help us unravel it all. Only, telling stories doesn’t really help simplify things. If the characters in the story are human beings, there are untold levels of complexity even within a single story.

We humans are complex creatures.

Parables, also, are stories.

We typically think that Jesus tells us parables that give us a singular truth, that help us to neatly break things down.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, it begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and from there, it’s off to story time with Uncle Jesus.

But Jesus, much like any good rabbi, doesn’t particularly like to de-simplify things. He’s just telling a story here.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, first, calls this the “worst parable ever,” and I can’t help agreeing. A king, which we all easily presume to be God, throws a banquet, and throws a guy out for not being dressed right? Just this week I read an article about a prison ministry where a prisoner reacted excitedly to the part where the “good and bad” people get invited to the party, but then exploded into anger when he reached the end: “What do you expect from people like us? We don’t have all the right clothes. We never look right! You should know that! ….Why you even invite us to any of this if you’re just gonna humiliate us and throw us out anyway?” (1)

Nadia talks about how you have to turn your head a thousand different ways to make sense of a parable. Jesus doesn’t define the characters for you. You aren’t told “this person is God,” and “this person is Jesus,” and “this person is you.” Well, sometimes you are, but you aren’t here. Christian literature includes many different people throughout history taking a hack at a parable and coming up with any number of possibilities that help us reveal deeper truths, and when we always look at the characters the same way, we get stuck in a rut.

As for me, I flipped through interpretation after interpretation this week where the king is God, and none of them seemed satisfactory to me, for reasons that Nadia Bolz-Weber captures perfectly in her telling of the story.

She writes, “…our parable for today is a real doozy.  Here’s how I heard it: A king throws a wedding banquet and invites the other rich, slave-owning powerful people. Seemingly unimpressed by the promised veal cutlet at the wedding feast, the elite invitees laugh at the invitation and proceed to abuse and then kill the slaves of the king.  Well then the king kills them back.  But he doesn’t stop there, not to be outdone, he burns down the city… and it is there amidst the burning carnage of the newly destroyed city he sends more slaves to go find whoever they can to fill the seats. After all…the food is ready and he has all these fancy robes for the guests. All he cares about is having every seat filled at his big party. But who is left?  He burned the city. The rich and powerful have been murdered so it’s the regular folks wandering the streets looking for their dead, picking apart the charred debris of their burned city who are then told that they have no choice but to go to the party of the guy responsible — and it’s already been established that he doesn’t respond well if you turn him down.  So the terrified masses show up and pretend that this capricious tyrant didn’t just lay waste to their city.  Out of fear they all dutifully put on their wedding robes given them at the door and they pretend. Slipping on a gorgeous garment was what you did for a king’s wedding feast. And the guests got to keep the outfits, just a little souvenir of the king’s generosity – and a reminder to keep in line. You don’t get anything from the empire without it costing you a bit of your life. 

Well, our story ends with these well dressed survivors looking on as the King spots the one guy at the banquet who isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  And when the innocent man has nothing to say for himself the king has this scapegoat hogtied and thrown into the outer darkness. ‘Many are called but few are chosen’ he says.” (2)

Welp, that blew my mind this week. Of course, I still have questions about some details, but despite my doubt that this is how Matthew intended the story to be read, this interpretation does, in my opinion, hold water. And despite Matthews intentions, any preacher knows that the Holy Spirit often works far outside our intentions.

Remember: Jesus’ audience lived in the midst of a lot of upheaval and turmoil; they lived under the thumb of the Roman empire. They were no strangers to moody tyrants burning cities: they lived in fear of it.

Not only that, the God that we worship in Jesus Christ is not a powerful king, but a servant. Jesus doesn’t kill his enemies and burn their cities; he’s killed by his powerful enemies for refusing to go along with them.

Nadia concludes, “…the kingdom of heaven is like: a first century Jewish peasant who laughed at the powerful, kissed lepers, befriended prostitutes and ate with all the wrong people and whom the authorities and the powerful elite had to hog tie and throw into the outer darkness.  …the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus.  And what if it is from this place of outer darkness that everything is changed?  It is in the outer darkness of Calvary where death is swallowed up forever.” (2)

No matter how you interpret this particular parable, it’s a theological truth that Christ and his defiance of the usual world order sets us free.

Free from the 24 hour news cycle.

Free from having to put on the right clothes and act the “right way.”

Free from partisanship and liberal orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy.

Free to think and consider the many angles of every story rather than being tied only to the interpretation that serves our pre-conceived assumptions about God, the world, the Bible, or each other.

Free to love.

Free to be grateful, to learn and work hard and give (it is stewardship season, after all), but also free to laugh and be joyful, because if it’s really true that Love rises from the grave, that changes everything.

Free to form community and real relationships based on love rather than expectations.

On the NPR News Weekly Roundup this past week, I did not expect to laugh with everything that the crew had to cover. After all, most of it was in the category of “always too soon” — it will never be funny.

But as they reached the end, the crew entered their final segment called “Can’t Let It Go,” where each member of the crew describes one thing from the news that they just can’t let go. It’s not a humor segment by any means; often the topics they cover are gravely serious.

And yet, this week, it unleashed giggle after giggle from me.

First, there was the description from a political correspondent of Steve Scalise, congressman from Louisiana who was hit in the hip during the shooting at the Congressional baseball practice earlier this year, returning to the halls of Congress. His return to the floor has been well documented, but this correspondent saw him outside his office riding his scooter, outfitted with an LSU sticker, very quickly and gleefully down the hallway while his very serious security detail half walking, half jogging after him.

Another correspondent who had been covering the recent Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin described a bi-partisan rally that included none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger saying at the end of his speech, “It is time to say hasta la vista to gerrymandering…”

Another described a mistake made by an NPR social media staff person who accidentally posted a personal photo to the NPR social media sites. Rather than being salacious, as many such mistakes are, it was instead a parental commentary about his daughter Ramona, who’s less than a year old.

This post appeared in news feeds next to the NPR News name and logo:
“Ramona is given new toy: smiles, examines for 20 seconds, discards.
Ramona gets a hug: acquiesces momentarily, squirms to be put down.
Ramona sees three cats thirty feet away: immediately possessed by shrieking, spasmodic joy that continues after cats flee for their lives.”

Twelve minutes later, the NPR account edited the post: “This post was intended for a personal account. We apologize for the error.”

The NPR Politics correspondent added, “In a world of darkness, this was some light. We apologize for any cuteness.”

By stepping out of our pretending to be on this team or that team, and by fostering love and understanding and community, we can step out of a world of darkness and add a little light. That is what we do here.

We don’t do it perfectly. Hell, sometimes we don’t do it well at all.

We’re a work in progress.

But we keep showing up. We keep standing out. We keep trying to do the impossible: build community in a divided world. Proclaim Good News in a world of terrible news.

And every single week, we gather around this banquet, where no one is required to come, but all are invited. Where you don’t have to be wearing the right robes or even have the right attitude to attend. Where you don’t have to subscribe to the right political or theological beliefs to attend.

Where all are welcome.

Where you will find joy, community, peace, abundance, and God.

So let’s step out in faith and step into our future together, because this kind of community is worth it. Because the only thing that love can’t do is stay dead.

I close with a benediction used by a UCC church in Connecticut pastored by a friend from Emory.

It’s mostly written by William Sloane Coffin, and I leave you with it.

“May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short,
the grace to risk something big for something good,
the grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
and too small for anything but love. (4)

Amen.

1. Read the whole Christian Century article on a prisoner’s reaction to this parable here.
2. Read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s whole sermon on this text here.
3. If you like podcasts, you can find the NPR News podcast online here.
4. Many thanks to the Reverend John Chapman at Westfield UCC in Killingly, Connecticut, for sharing this benediction.

Oh, and if you want to read more about Ramona (who doesn’t?), you can do that here.

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