Thank you to those who have spoken to me in response to my sermon of Sunday. I deeply appreciate your feedback. At your requests, I am posting my sermon here. It's not something I normally do ... don't think I have ever done it before. But, here it is. It is my prayer that as we all search and act in the wake of this crisis, that it is part of that faithful response.
20 Pentecost, October 15, 2023 - All Saints, Bay Head, NJ
(Sung) I cannot come … I cannot come to the banquet; don’t trouble me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow; I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum … pray hold me excused, I cannot come!
If you went to church summer camp you may recognize that as the chorus of a favorite song recounting this parable. But that song is more reflective of Luke’s telling than the one we have in Matthew. In Luke’s version when the feast is ready, those who had been invited get the news that all is ready, and it is time to come. Some give excuses for why they can’t make it--the kind of excuses that make a snappy chorus to a camp song: “married a wife, bought me a cow.” So, the king issues another invitation to gather those who would have been overlooked, but still there is room. So, the call goes out far and wide, so anyone who is willing is included.
That’s Luke’s version, and it makes for nice preaching ...
Matthew’s version, which we just read, is brutal. It looks a lot more like the final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Tara at the end of Gone with the Wind.
The beginning is about the same, but after the second invitation, trouble starts. Those who decide not to attend do not ask to be excused for their absence; they simply ignore all practices of hospitality, disrespect the host, and return to daily chores.
The real horror comes as “the rest” seize and kill the servants. Suddenly, this sounds like the parable of the wicked vineyard tenants from last week.
The King responds to the violence with more violence. He murders the murderers and burns the city to the ground.
A third invitation is issued to anyone left standing, and the banquet hall is finally filled. So, we would expect the feast can go forward, right? Well, no … there is still more violence. Because one of the now homeless and possession-less survivors arrives without the right clothes and is cast into the abyss.
Matthew’s version is not the stuff of campfire songs. We want to say, “Jesus, what happened to 'everyone is welcome?'“
Context is important. At this point in Matthew, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has had his Triumphant Entry--what we mark on Palm Sunday. He has turned over the tables in the temple. He’s spending lots of time telling parables to the religious authorities who are seeking to kill him and put an end to His message of love and inclusion. Tensions are high, and the cost is ultimate.
This is not a parable to be taken literally; Jesus is not interested in violent judgment. Matthew’s gospel is written in about 70 AD, so the burning down of the city could be referring to the destruction of the Temple. This along with killings could be a symbolic result of rejecting Jesus.
What is described in the way this parable is recorded is outrageous … absurd even. It is hyperbolic; it is not to be taken literally.
However, deep diving into it is good material for a teaching sermon.
And a half dozen weeks and parables ago that’s where the preaching cycle was headed. It would have been a suitable way to respond to this Gospel, but that was before 6:30 AM last Saturday. Since last Saturday, along with you and the world, I have watched in horror and disbelief at what has transpired, and this Gospel just doesn’t sound the same now.
We could have focused on the king representing God and inviting everyone into the richness of the banquet feast, but that was before we learned that 260 people who had come together for a banquet of song and dance were targeted because they provided an opportunity for mass – indiscriminate murder.
We could have explored first century social norms related to hospitality: how no one would have refused an invitation to a banquet, especially from the king. But that was before reports and body counts emerged from kibbutzes. Kibbutzes where generations of families lived together in socially organized communities centered on principles of hospitality and care. Kibbutzes that were targeted both because of their proximity to Gaza and because of their abundance of children.
We could have followed a line of considering our daily tasks and routines that we allow to distract us from accepting readily God’s invitation to deeper relationship and abundant life with Him, but that was before personal cell phone videos emerged of grandmothers being shot in front of their children and grandchildren, who were then carried away by their murdering captors.
We could have compared the son in the vineyard parable to the servants delivering invitations in today’s world, but that was before we heard a shattered father crying relieved thanks that his 8-year-old daughter, Emily, was found dead--because it meant she was not suffering treatment as a hostage which he believed would have been far worse than death … for both of them.
It has been a horrifying … beyond comprehension … heart-emptying week. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have the heart or brain space to parse the theological and historical wrappings--nor to wonder why Jesus needed to tell a story with such violence in it, even knowing it will eventually lead to a truth about the Kingdom of God. Not today. Not this week. Probably not for a long while.
I get confused - and need crib notes in front of me - to track of the complexity that is “The situation in the Middle East.” I can’t wrap my head around all the political, historical, religious, and geographical underpinnings, nor the human greed and desires for domination that are the backstory and foundation of the horrors ignited.
I called my dear friend Rebecca who is an Orthodox Jew; I didn’t have any words, but I wanted to offer her my silence to listen. In her traumatic daze she talked about her husband’s family, who live what they hope is a safe enough distance from the Gaza Strip. She recounted how they visited there and witnessed respected relationships and interconnected lives of Israelis and Palestinians. “That’s what it’s mostly like … it’s mostly normal. Then there’s Hamas; they’re trying to annihilate us.”
I called our own Jim Doran because he teaches courses on International Security and Politics at Rutgers. I asked if he had 15 minutes for an impossible task … to help me sort some of this out, because I had to preach today. And although I could homiletically avoid this massive humanitarian crisis, I couldn’t morally do so. He talked me through things I knew and provided ways to connect floating facts and dates with nuanced realities. It is layers beyond complex.
Then Jim shared five words that Paul Nitze, the founder of the School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington, D.C., said about why there is no peace in the Middle East--just five words: “Really hot; not much water.”
Five words seems manageable … but the crisis of the five words … and the self-interest of the countries bordering on all sides … aren’t.
Hamas is not the same as Palestinian. Hamas is a terrorist organization. That’s understandable. Yet, without being a Palestinian living the way they are regulated and relegated to live, it’s not all understandable.
It is still incomprehensible: Hamas, Ukraine, 9/11, genocide, the Holocaust, Newtown elementary … none of it makes sense. AND, there’s a reason it doesn’t make any sense.
Terrorist acts defy sensibility … and humanity … and decency, and most of all, terrorist acts deny love. They are incomprehensible and indefensible.
• Killing servants who are delivering invitations or an heir collecting his father’s share of the harvest;
• Perpetrating atrocities that are so inhumane that media, which itself often lacks a moral compass, blurs images and stops the video clips short;
• Events that are so horrific that conspiracies of fabrication find a footing because the reality seems impossible …
Some weeks I dread the preaching task: the requirement to find something to say in the face of unrelenting assaults on ‘the dignity of every human being’ is an understandable contributing factor to clergy burnout.
This is all unimaginable … all incomprehensible.
On the other hand, so is God. God is unimaginable. God is incomprehensible. God’s love is unimaginable. God’s boundless love is incomprehensible.
God who loves us so much that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him would have everlasting life.
God who reassures us with the promise “I am with you, always.”
God who wraps us in grace when we say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”
God who created us in their image and named us beloved.
God whom we know as tender, loving, shepherd … and though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for He is with us, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. Amen.