19 January 2021
A few weeks ago a picnic was found by the lake. The Barbie set, the tablecloth laid out, candles and matches ready and salads and other goodies waiting to be eaten.. Obviously some one had hoped for a dinner by the lake. Obviously something terrible had happened to those at the dinner and police and search and rescue started to look. It never occurred to anyone that in fact, the feast had been prepared with care and love and the guest had not turned up. When he realised that a huge search for the missing people was being organised the embarrassed young man who had prepared it came forward and told the story of his preparations for a .romantic dinner with the girl he hoped to have as his girlfriend. She had texted him that she was going off with some friends and his meal was left, forlornly by the lake and the road closed for logging.
You see it never occurred to those searching that no one would have turned up to the prepared meal. That is a shock factor still today. A meal that is waiting for someone who never comes.
So when Jesus tells this story of a King preparing a feast for a wedding party, we are expecting that we'd be left with the happy picture of a succulent feast with the chatter of the guests and the gentle clink of plates being stacked and new courses coming through.
Instead Matthew leaves us with the bitter image of empty places at the table, being filled by late invitees and bouncers tossing someone out. We're left along with the chatter of a celebratory feast the sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Where is the good news in that!
Barbara Brown Taylor says that The Bible is a book about a sovereign God's covenant with a chosen people, as full of holy terrors as it is of holy wonders, none of which we may avoid without avoiding part of the truth. We don't do so well with the terror parts. They do not fit the image we wish to publish. They go against the Good News we want to proclaim.
One way we accept them is by making them seem less terrible. We say: Of course God sent a ram to take Isaac's place at the last moment; Of course God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all. And we turn them into stories of our good works. So the stories are really about how obedience results in rescue and resurrection.
But that loses the very real terror of obeying God without the least idea of how things will turn out in the end. Stepping out in faith. The ends not tidy, wrapped up before you set off on the journey. Trouble is we do put our faith in stuff that is illusion, like savings and stock and markets - and where is that for many today as the world's leaders scramble to change bankrates and print money.
Faith in God that things will turn out according to God's will, suddenly seems much more sensible. After all the God who made us and has demonstrated that God is eternally interested in the result of God's creation is ultimately much safer than our finite monetary system. But as God's will is so radically different from our own, and we can't control God, there is plenty of room for terror in our lives.
Two kinds of biblical stories bring out this terror. First, those in which it appears that God sanctions violence. The second are those in which God exercises final judgment--and this story is one of these - banishing the ill-clad wedding guest to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 22:13).
These are terrible passages, because they remind me how helpless I am, how frail and powerless.
So It would have been much easier to deal with this story if it finished a few verses earlier. And that is what Luke did when he told this story in his gospel.. But for the listeners of Matthew who by now would have been through the destruction of the temple and of the city of Jerusalem Matthew's ending would have spoken into the upheaval and despair of their situation.
This is a parable of grace. Jesus begins by telling us that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepares a feast. That's grace for you: The King has prepared everything. We don't have to peel the potatoes or save up enough money to afford the gourmet banquet. No, all we have to do is show up hungry!
But this matter of "showing up" is just the problem: no one does. They had said they'd come, but then they don't, and so the king starts to panic. I know how he feels.. Cooking is about timing as much as anything else and if I've got the meat already roasting in the oven, I can't put it on pause--it's going to be finished at a certain point. In those days with no refrigeration and no supermarket down the road preparing a feast is a one way enterprise - there is no going back.
So the king begins to make calls, sends his servants out and a flurry of excuses begins to pour in. "Sorry, got to get back to work! Duty calls. My clients need attention, closing on a big deal this evening and I can't be in two places at once." The Aunts have arrived unexpectedly on the camel train from Egypt and we have to be there.
The king can't believe it. Those who were the most trusted servants were now assumed that they could not only ignore the king but openly try to destroy the business of the king. The King reacts, destroys the murderers and burns their city. Note the story is full of exaggeration but you get the message.
But he's not going to let good food go to waste and so he sends out some servants. "Go pick up the prostitutes, the beggars in the streets, the addicts and the glue sniffers.. Empty out the shelters - go look under the bridges and drag those people over here. Don't discriminate. Take the good with the bad. The main thing is that a feast as lavish as this one gets enjoyed by someone!"
Before the evening is out the king's banquet hall is filled with people who can't believe their good luck. People who usually drink behind the carpark suddenly find themselves sipping drinks that satisfy their thirst , with their glasses getting re-filled by attentive waiters. Those for whom finding a half-eaten cheeseburger from a McDonald's skip is a treat, suddenly are able to wolf down scallops and rack of lamb with braised mushrooms and a sauce that is too delicious to describe. And the conversation - they all have so much to say and so much to share.
It is an extravagant scene, which tells us something about grace. God does not scrimp! God sqaunders goodness freely on the people who seem to deserve it least.
And that is where it could have stopped. Matthew's listeners would have heard loud and clear that they were invited and those who had been consider to be the favoured ones had simply refused to come-. and had brought destruction upon themselves.
But in case they then thought they were now the favoured ones. We have a warning. There is a person who does attend the banquet but who gets tossed out on account of inappropriate attire. It was, I must say, the custom for the guests to be supplied with garments by the host .This King does things on his terms. It is not the guests who make the rules. Matthew's listeners would have heard warnings about false teachings. The King is able to spot one person who is dressed differently from the rest of his motley assortment of guests.. HE thought he could come in his own way and had not put on the wedding garments provided.
The Spirit of God clothes us with Christ. Christ is the way. , We cannot, as this man apparently did, bypass the gifts of the King and think we can do it our own way.
The man is speechless when the king asks him "why aren't you dressed for a party" and is bounced from the party and there is waling and gnashing of teeth and outer darkness.
Biblical tales of terror pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act.
Judgment, violence, rejection, death--these are present in our world and our lives. And there is some consolation in the fact that they are present in the Bible as well. They remind us that the Bible is not all lambs and rainbows. If it were, it would not be our book. Our book has everything in it--wonder and terror, worst fears and best hopes--both for ourselves and our relationship with God. The best hope of all is that because the terrors are included as part of the covenant story, they may turn out to be redemptive in the end, when we see dimly no more but face to face at last.
That is the fundamental hope to which all tales of terror drive us: That however wrong they may seem, is that God may be present in them, working redemption in ways we are not equipped to see. Our fear of God's method may turn out to be like our fear of the surgeon's knife, which must wound before it can heal. While we would prefer to avoid it altogether, our survival depends on our trust in the surgeon's skill. If we believe that the one to whom we surrender ourselves is competent, then, in the words of Julian of Norwich, "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
If we are open to this possibility as we hear this story then we open to the possibility in our lives as well. Whether the terror is heard on Sunday or lived on Monday, the question remains the same: Do we trust God to act in all the events of our lives, or only the ones that meet our approval.
Paul's letters encourage us, written from the places of terror he is experiencing he tells us that nothing can separate us from God's love and that is the light in which we look at and deal with the terrors of our lives. And we then can hear the good news, the good and the bad are all at the feast and the story does end with joy for everyone is invited.
"Rejoice in the Lord always--I will say it again: Rejoice!" Amen.
Ref Barbara Brown Taylor
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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