Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Best wishes" at the Wedding Banquet

A few weeks ago on Facebook, I saw a post by a colleague claiming this was a true story: a parishioner ran into someone in a grocery store line and somehow their church came up. And the person behind them said, “Oh, St. Swithin’s, I went there once… I’ll never set foot in that church again.” The parishioner was sad to hear that and said, “Why? What happened?” The newcomer said, “Well, when I went into the church, I was greeted so warmly, and I thought I might really belong there. And then the pastor greeted me, and we had a great conversation, and again, I thought maybe I’d found a church home. But then after the service I was speaking to some women and one of them said something mean about what I was wearing. I was humiliated, and I’m never going back.”

When my Bible study group met a few weeks ago and I shared that story in the context of today’s parable of the wedding banquet, it unleashed several deep and passionate stories from both childhood and adulthood of feeling awkward and judged by what we wore, or what we looked like. We all knew, viscerally, what it was to be excluded from a group, and to feel like we had been cast into outer darkness because of a cruelty that resonates throughout this parable.

Is the kingdom of God really just some big party where I don’t fit in because of how I’m dressed? And is God some horrible king who demands conformity and obedience at the threat of violent punishment? This parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s gospel is a very provocative parable, one that leaves me questioning both its meaning for us today on a large scale, and for us as individuals.

It has been used at times to support anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, by reading it that the Jews were the first invited guests to the banquet, and having rejected Jesus, it is now compatible with the parable for Christians to execute God’s judgment through violence. If I met someone on the street who had never heard of Jesus, never heard of Christianity, this would be one of the last passages I would point to in order to explain our faith.

When Helen Goodkin taught her class on parables a few weeks ago, she opened with a series of quotes about the purpose of parables. One was by the theologian Kenneth Bailey: “A parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, [and] then urged…to look on the world through the windows of that residence.”

So let’s climb into the house, and start looking through the windows. What is it like to live in the house of the parable of the wedding banquet, and what do we see from it?

Seeing it that way challenges me to see the world through a window in which the Kingdom of God is a place where all are invited, but that many people reject. The way the parable is written, I believe perhaps Matthew is overhumanizing God—if a king would be angry, then God must be angry. I don’t believe God is angry when we reject God. I believe God is devastated and grieving. It is God who is weeping and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness when those he has invited to the wedding banquet of his son reveal that they would rather go about their business—off to brunch, off to watch football, doing the thousand other things one might do on a Sunday morning, than to come and celebrate with them. Sitting in the house of the parable, looking out the window, I find myself sympathizing with the king who has been rejected. To be clear, I don’t like the response—the slaughter of the servants, and then the vengeance against the invitees. But if you were God, and you were inviting every human being on earth to join you in a celebration, and they wouldn’t come… what pain that must be. Now if you or I was throwing a party, and every person we invited refused to come, we would cancel the party. But for God, when the invited guests don’t come, instead of cancelling the party, the invitation is extended further—this time, not just to the important people but to everyone, with the explicit mention that those who are called are both good and bad. Everyone is invited. Some refuse to attend, but God’s invitation is extended to all.

And then we get to the second part of the parable about the man who is thrown into outer darkness because he isn’t wearing his wedding robe. We react badly to that because it sounds so unfair—maybe you could be expected to wear a wedding robe if you were one of the original invited guests, but if you were just on the way to the market it seems highly unfair to be expected to have a wedding robe in your pocket just on the off chance that someone might invite you to a wedding while you’re out.

Now there is a tradition that I cannot confirm is historical, and in fact may be a very early attempt by Christians to soften this parable, that says that at the time of Jesus, guests were given a wedding robe when they arrived. So it’s not that the man without the wedding robe just happened to be improperly dressed, it was that he was actively refusing the hospitality of his host. That puts a different spin on it. It is one thing to be expected to always have a wedding robe with you just in case someone invites you in off the street; it is another to actively reject a garment that the host wants you to wear.

Paul often uses the image of putting on a garment as a way of talking about faith. In Romans, he instructs us to “put on the armor of light” (Romans 3:12), in Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11) and “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15). If we want to be Christians but we don’t want to wear the clothes of a Christian, maybe we need to find a different party. Put on mercy, put on faith, put on armor to protect us from sin and violence and despair. Things that can be put on can also be taken off—but things that can be put on can shape who we are inside.

From my time acting, I always found that I learned so much about a character when I put on the costume. It altered how you moved, how confident you felt, how you expected to be treated. My last role at Yale was playing Desdemona, a character that doesn’t at first seem like a very natural match for me. I remember the dress and how feminine and pretty I felt in it; how it changed how I moved, how I held myself. It didn’t feel like me—at least not at first—but while I was in it, I could be Desdemona more authentically, I understood her more, and in some sense became her more.

Our faith isn’t a costume to be put on at will and then discarded when it is inconvenient. But there is something to be learned from the experience of trying on faith—trying on the virtues that Paul writes about today—trying on whatever is pure and honorable and just and true and pleasing and of excellence. We cannot sustain that by ourselves in the long term. But the daily act of putting it on, can help us inhabit it, and it can shape us, making us more the Christians we desire to be and who God desires us to be.

When I look at the parable and try to see it from the window of the whole church, a funny thing happens. It occurs to me that there’s a major character missing in this story of a wedding banquet. There’s a groom, and a father of the groom, and there are guests. Who’s missing? The bride!

Of course that omission says a lot about gender bias in the 1st century. If we were writing a parable about a wedding today, the bride would be a character--and so would the mother of the bride!  But we have a long tradition of seeing the Church as the bride of Christ. And if we look through the window of this parable and see the bride as the church, then wait a minute, we are the bride. We don’t watch the wedding of Christ and the Church from the back of the pew—we are collectively the bride. We are not invited guests, we are part of the happy couple. Let us dwell in the reflections of love and joy that imbue Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning: “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” We are getting married. And as you always say to the bride at a wedding, “Best Wishes.” Best wishes for your life wearing the garment of faith. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.