Sunday, October 12, 2014

Proper Dress, Matthew 22:1-14

Commerce Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2014
Rev. C. Craig Topple
 
Many are called, few are chosen.
 
There are many passages of scripture, and this particular passage for today was chosen by the Monday bible study group who wanted to hear a sermon on it.
They wanted a challenge, or just wanted to challenge me!  
Let’s see what Craig can do with this!

We are in week four of our Heaven on Earth project.  
We are focused; honing in on passages found in Matthew’s Gospel when he uses a certain key phrase, a frequently used term of Jesus: the kingdom of heaven.
We are attempting to see this as a code word for transformation of consciousness,
Jesus is calling us to be transformed
by going past our minds and moving into our hearts, where we can be more in tuned with the heartbeat of God, whose heart yearns for closeness with us.
Many of Jesus teachings that used this code word, kingdom of heaven, are told in parables.  
Many parables, like the good Samaritan or the prodigal son, are familiar and well-loved; but how well understood?

Then we have others, like the one from today, which are not spoken of often, and kind of leave us scratching our heads….uh say what Jesus?

Jesus admitted: The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' (Matt 13:13)

I’d like to hear some of you teachers in your evaluations at school say something similar to school administrators if/when they express concern about your students’ getting it - I teach this way so they do not perceive or listen or understand!
Jesus loves to teach in parables, but, what is a parable?  
Let’s look at how a parable may function, by comparing it to a proverb.
A proverb is something along the lines of Aesop’s Fables: a teaching story with a moral to it; we're learn a specific lesson.
The moral of the story is….always listen to your mother and father...those are the best ones right.


But for Jesus, his parables seem to function in a very different way than a fable or proverb…
He doesn’t always leave us with a clear moral of the story;
His parables often conclude with a pithy phrase:
therefore the first will be last and the last first;
or
many of called but few are chosen.
And we’re kind of left like...huh?
how does that phrase fit with what you just said?


Jesus parables are much closer to what in the Zen tradition would be koans--
they’re more like profound paradoxes (riddles, if you like) that are intended to turn the egoic mind upside down...
As we pay more attention to Jesus’ parables, seeking to discover their meaning/what jesus was trying to do in his teachings, our head may hurt a bit, but
slowly we discover  what he may really be up to is rewriting our consciousness.
What we once thought of as beloved folk tales are in fact engaged in some fairly radical sabotage of our way of seeing the world.


Let's consider today’s parable.


What are some of your reactions to this parable
harsh? confusing?
What questions come up?
Who are the originally invited guests?
why would they refuse to come...not once, but twice?
why were they invited twice?
why did some turn all violent?
yikes...the king gets some major revenge on--
who was the king to represent again?


the new guests show up...good and bad people, what’s that about?
the one dude gets called out because of his clothes?
The king asks him how he got in...were there bouncers there?
you’re outta here! not into the streets, but to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
what kind of wedding banquet is this anyway?
and then to top it off,
Many are called, few are chosen…
huh?
are the many called all the guests there, but the few chosen the one wearing improper garments
or are the many called the first invited guests, the few chosen the guests who finally came, but weren’t invited initially, and they are good and bad, and then there’s the one who isn’t wearing proper dress....


what is this about?
you want answers?
we think we’re entitled them
you want answers?
we want the truth!
you can’t handle the truth?!
As we sit with these questions, I thought it would be interesting to see how others have attempted to interpret these passages, provide answers to espouse the truth since Jesus first told the parable....  
let’s go back more than 1500 years.  ancient church father, st Chrysostom preached a sermon on this text.
When speaking of the wedding garments he says:
Reverence the love of Him, who called you, and let no one continue to have filthy garments, but let each of you busy himself about the clothing of your soul.
Hear, ye women; hear, ye men; we need not these garments that are bespangled with gold, that adorn our outward parts,2603but those others, that adorn the inward....
It is not possible at the same time to deck both soul and body.


Call to mind those holy persons...them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; ….even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web... And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.


For St. Chrysostom, this is a parable about material wealth and spiritual asceticism…
choosing a life that pursues adorning the soul through spiritual pursuits rather than adorning the body through material pursuits; in this way the conscience is brightened.


let’s jump ahead 1000 years to the writings of john calvin, our beloved church father...
much of his interpretation of this passage uses broad sweeping strokes to condemn the “jews”,
those invited first were the jews, and their haughty rejection of [God’s] grace was followed by the madness of cruelty. Yes, Calvin says, God destroys those ungodly men who reject the grace of god…. But not just the Jews….lest non Jews get too comfortable, Calvin says:
this doctrine applies equally to us; for the same destruction which Christ denounces against the Jews awaits all the ungodly, who violently oppose the ministers of the Gospel. As to the wedding garment, is it faith, or is it a holy life? This is a useless controversy; for faith cannot be separated from good works, nor do good works proceed from any other source than from faith. Let us not flatter ourselves with the empty title of faith, but let every man seriously examine himself, that at the final review he may be pronounced to be one of the lawful guests….I enter no farther, at present, into the question about the eternal election of God; for the words of Christ mean nothing more than this, that the external profession of faith is not a sufficient proof that God will acknowledge as his people all who appear to have accepted of his invitation. [293]
our man Calvin! Violence, destruction, rejection!
You may profess the faith, but that isn’t sufficient proof god will accept you. ...
we jump ahead again 500 years this time to 1955, I found this book by, John R Rice, The King of the Jews, in the church’s library. Rice is firmly convinced:
“this is a parable interpreting the course of events until christ returns.” [A rapture interpretation.]
The certain king is God the father.
His son is Jesus Christ.
The marriage will occur following the rapture of the saints when christ comes into the air to receive us.
The church is likened unto a bride.
After the rapture, when [the chosen] are caught up to meet christ in the air, we will never leave him anymore.  
“this parable clearly shows” - I love that, clearly show-- “that all the prophets preached the same plan of salvation as given in the new testament.”  
But, they would not come - the response of sinners to God’s grace  
the king sent to kill them- typical of the wrath of god against all sinners who reject christ.
those who accept are exceptions.  
the garments are like the robes of righteousness, the garments of the saints, - salvation.  
the man speechless - a christ rejecting sinner.
outer darkness is hell, so terrible there are many phases of its torments.  
many are called -that is everybody is invited to the wedding supper
few are chosen - no one can attend but those who are willing to take by faith the wedding garment ahead of time...
...rapture! Acceptance and rejection,  faith and hell!  woah!


Finally, we jump ahead again, just 50 years this time, to this century, and theologian Brian McLaren, a leader in what is known as the emergent church movement.  On his blog--of course--he responds to a query about this confusing parable:
I used to interpret this passage according to this "key" -
God = king
Son = Jesus
"Invitation" = predestination, gospel presentation
outer darkness = hell
But I am leaning toward another approach.
The king in this story is characterized by violence, capriciousness, and coercion ... hardly a sensible portrayal of the God embodied in Jesus!
So try this:
king = Caesar
outer darkness = persecution for justice's sake, cross
man cast out = Son of Man (Jesus and those who follow his way)
Caesar….pretends to be a benefactor...
pretends to be inviting people to a feast,
but the falsity of his invitation is shown by the way he treats those who decline.
Some of the people - representing local leaders who are being "invited" into the empire but know where it leads
(to oppression, exploitation, etc.) - respond in kind.
They aren't fooled, and they engage in terrorism and rebellion against the emperor (seizing his slaves, maltreating them, murdering them).
The insecure and dictatorial emperor responds by filling the banquet with the population at large (against their will).
Among them is a lone figure who refuses to dress up in costume and play the role.
Who is that? The Son of Man - "the new generation of humanity" -
Jesus and those who follow his new, nonviolent way of freedom, love, and peace.
When he is apprehended, "like a lamb to slaughter, he opened not his mouth," as Isaiah said.
He is expelled into "outer darkness."
This is Jesus going to the cross - and in doing so, he exposes the false generosity of "the powers that be" as a sham and show.
Mclaren admits:
“This interpretation is problematic in some ways, but so is the standard one (!).”
so Mclaren asks: “What do you think of this interpretation? I'd love to hear comments on twitter or facebook.”


Four interpretations across two millennia...
many interpretations have been given, you may have to chose the one you like best; particularly if you are hoping for answers in order to be more certain….


But what if we go beyond seeking answers and certainty, and ask:
How does this parable function to give me better understanding about who God is and about who I am?
It has been suggested there are two major groups of people in the world: those who want certitude and those who seek understanding. And, those two groups have a very hard time understanding one another! Often, we find church people primarily consisting of people in the first group... An enclave of settled and certain people, who have and will serve a real need in history and culture.
But are good certain church people what the gospel needs and the world longs for right now? Father Richard Rohr says, “just speaking structurally, it is a sure recipe for a failing company or institution when people caught up in certitudes are running the show.”
Just look at church splits…look at our political discourse!
So often we find church people who are not bridge builders to a larger world, but wagon circlers around a world where teaching their own mythology--our american way of life; our version of christianity; our ideology...becomes more important than honest faith seeking understanding.
When this happens the church becomes more and more an exclusionary institution, concerned about being certain, and proper church dress may serve as metaphor for how this has played in churches over the years.
Statistically, the crowds that are gathering in churches, any churches, are the already properly dressed. All in the name of a Jesus who told us to "go out to the crossroads and invite everyone to the wedding feast." And, as we often see, rigid people finally turn against one another and against the success of the mission.
Can the ancient and wise institution of the church move beyond the fears and threats that may feed a need for certainty, in order to “[collect] everyone they could, good and bad alike" (Matthew 22:9-10).
Many people are growing up without any clear sense of identity, order, or boundaries, without much inner experience, and even less any authentic religious experience.  
If they’re receiving invitations, they aren’t banging down the church doors to get in....
the church can try to threaten, “come to church or else there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” but folks aren’t falling for it anymore.  
They seek authentic faith, which maybe isn’t just about having right answers, “orthodoxy” but, instead, where people of faith seek to engage the world in a meaningful way “orthopraxy”….for the need for meaning is deep and profound. Jesus offers deep profound meaning through the dark journey of sacrificial living. Jesus offers communion with the Divine Mystery that can overcome such darkness. Jesus echoes the teachings of wisdom...who calls to us all.
And so jesus teaches in parables; challenging all basic structures, assumptions, and beliefs about ourselves...so that we may be transformed. He may make us angry or frustrated sometimes because there are no easy answers...but he doesn’t want us to give up…
But instead, maybe just to simply sit with these difficult teachings in meditation,
and begin to discover where all of these characters—
the king and his slaves,
the various invited guests,
the good and bad,
the properly dressed
the speechless one thrown out
—where do these live within our own being,


Do you worried about those who reject the invitation to the banquet?
Are you concerned you won’t get invited?
Do we really know as well as we think we do what’s good and what’s bad?  
Do you worry you aren't dressed properly?


And when you find yourself sitting with a certain question, something that is unsettling,
or focused on a particular phrase, you might ask, “What is God saying to me in this?”


In this way this or any parable becomes like a mirror that reflects back to us our own state of consciousness. This is what my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault taught me, and so I share with you. Once you begin to see it, you can’t not see it: This element of subversiveness is the common thread in virtually all Jesus’ teaching.  He is very deliberately trying to short-circuit that grasping, acquiring, clinging, comparing linear brain and to open up within us a whole new mode of perception not what we see, but how we see.  


This is a classic strategy of a master of wisdom; calling us to see a whole new world.  Thanks be to God...Amen.

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