Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Today, we welcomed baby Madison into the family of God through Baptism, and in a short while we will also be privileged to witness Izzy, Dane, Victoria, and Marit claiming and reiterating the promises that were made on their behalf at their baptisms. What is NOT happening today is that we are not handing out manuals enumerating 6 Easy Steps Toward Christian Living. If anyone here was hoping that today would be like a graduation ceremony, where we hear some inspirational readings and a talk, sing the right songs, and then head downstairs for some cake now formal education is behind us, then you will be sorely disappointed.
Maybe to underline this point, the Gospel text appointed for this glorious day is possibly the worst parable ever! In the whole library of books that comprise the Bible, why is this the reading for today? Of course there are other lessons I could preach–that timeless Psalm about the Good Shepherd, or Isaiah’s beautiful dream of a wonderful feast where the shroud of death is ripped in two, or the practical advice to the Christians in Philippi of how to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. But I felt I had to delve into today’s parable from Matthew. It is part of a long conversation Jesus is having with good church people who spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the Bible. And because it is a horror story if ever I heard one, I thought we good church-going people who are people of the Book, even when the book is bizarre, ought to give it some attention.
This is not the only horror story in the Bible. There are lots of scary parts–most of which never show up in worship or in Sunday school classes. Do you know about Jael, who is referred to in the book of Judges as “the most blessed of women” (5:24-27) because she hammered a tent peg through the skull of an enemy general while he slept? Or the story of the prophet Elisha cursing a crowd of jeering boys “in the name of the Lord,” resulting two bears obediently trundling out of the woods and mauling forty-two of the boys (2 Kgs 2:23-24)! Should I remind you before we collect the offering about Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead for withholding part of their cash from the early Christian community (Acts 5:1-11)? I am not making this stuff up! It’s all in this fantastically weird library we call the Holy Scriptures, right alongside Matthew’s strikingly violent version of the wedding banquet parable.
Does anybody else miss having a Bible study?
Probably we are more familiar with Luke’s version of this parable (Luke 14:15-24). In Luke, when the invited guests ungratefully reject the invitation to the feast, the host sends his servants out to bring in the poor, the disabled, and the excluded; they come and enjoy his extravagant spread. But Matthew’s kingdom-vision is harder to celebrate. Here, the invited guests not only refuse the invitation, but also abuse and even kill the servants sent to invite them! In retaliation for their bad behavior, the king burns down their city. Then Matthew has the king’s servants go “into the streets and gather all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
I wish the parable ended there. I could embrace the idea that the kingdom of God is about responding when God calls us, and that we are to humbly leave judgment about who is welcome at God’s table to God. I could admonish our confirmands and Madison’s family to remember that elitism has no place in God’s kingdom. But that’s NOT where the parable ends.
Instead, Matthew tacks on a little part about one guest who dared to arrive without a wedding robe, and so was bound “hand and foot and [thrown] into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). Jesus concludes this story by saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” What? What does this MEAN? Where is the Gospel—the Good News—in this? What are we supposed to make of this violent, gruesome story? How are we to reconcile this image of a capricious, vengeful God with the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, or the loving God in Isaiah who wipes away all our tears?
If this story were the only one like it in the Gospels it would be easier to ignore. But in all four Gospels there is a more central story that is even more gruesome than this one: the story of God’s own beloved child, wrongly accused, beaten, naked, and bleeding on a cross. And this story is no parable. This is a real body with real blood, dying in real pain, with real shame. There is genuine darkness and weeping and probably even gnashing of teeth. How do we worship a loving God who allows such terrible things to happen? How do we honor a God who does not stop such horror?
Each of our confirmands mused on questions they’d like to ask God if they could. More than one wanted to know why God allows awful things to happen in the world. As I read this Gospel lesson or watch the horrible suffering in Puerto Rico, California, Syria, Burma, and elsewhere I stand alongside these students and ask God, “WHY?”
Some people try to make the story of Jesus on the cross seem less terrible, saying things like, “Of course God eventually raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all.” OR “The story of the Passion is really about how obedience to God results in rescue and resurrection.” And those things are true. But they don’t change the story for me. It’s still awful to contemplate the injustice of an innocent person being tortured and executed.
Furthermore, pretending that it isn’t scary to follow God without the least idea of how things will turn out seems untruthful to me. In faith we profess that things will turn out according to God’s will, and we say that trust that is enough for us. But what IS God’s will? How are we to encourage our young people to follow Jesus if we also have to point out that suffering is a likely outcome of such a choice? In the Christian life, there is no witness protection program.
Both the story of Jesus and parables like this one from Matthew are troubling because they remind us how helpless and powerless we can be. While there are clearly things we can do to improve our lives and things we can do to cheapen them, we cannot control God. I know I’ve certainly tried taking refuge in the logic of righteousness equaling blessing, sinfulness equaling pain. We’ve probably all heard that those who live peaceful, non-confrontational lives and who obey God avoid the struggle and sword, while those who don’t give generously or are not good sheep are punished.
But this idea that living well will result in blessings doesn’t hold up in either human experience or Biblical witness. Terrible things DO happen to good people. All the time! Remember what happened to Jesus? The Scriptures are filled with stories reminding us that righteousness has nothing to do with whether or not we face trials and tribulation. I may want to say that baptism and good clean living keep us from suffering, but it’s just not the truth.
Here is the truth: we don’t know why awful things happen to some people and not others. We don’t understand how God answers prayers. We aren’t sure what to make of a lot of stuff in the Bible. We cannot predict God’s decisions and cannot control God’s actions. I’m sorry, Confirmands and Madison’s family. If you were hoping that after today you’d be sealed off from any kind of harm or confusion, we cannot offer you any reassurance. Our lives are in the hands of the living God, and even Jesus, who was entirely sinless and good, shows us that this is a risky place to be.
An 18th century Puritan pastor named Jonathan Edwards wrote a story about a man who was in danger of drowning in a river. As the current pushed him downstream, the man grasped at every twig within his reach. Then people tried to pull the twigs away from him, which only increased his fear. But it was only when they pulled away the twigs that he finally could see the shore, and swim toward safety.
In those split seconds between having everything we are depending on ripped out of our grip and seeing our salvation, there is sheer terror. Maybe that’s how to approach Biblical horror stories too. Maybe they are intended to pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act. Perhaps we should allow our fear to propel us toward God.
Our fear of God’s methods may turn out to be similar to our fear of a surgeon’s knife, which has to cut and wound before healing can begin. We might prefer to forgo the pain altogether, but our survival depends on trusting in the surgeon’s skill and judgment. We have to trust that the One to whom we surrender ourselves is competent and caring, gracious and merciful.
On this day, you confirmands profess that you are going to carry on living as God’s faithful people. I invite you (and those who made promises on your behalf long ago) to remember that–as scary as it can be–we are called to let go of the twigs of our limited understanding and to swim toward the living God. The Good News in this challenge is that we are not just swimming toward God; God is swimming out toward us too. We hear about God’s companionship on our journeys over and over again in every book of the Bible.
And maybe there’s a crazy kind of consolation in the fact that judgment, violence, rejection, and death are all present in Scripture, since they are certainly present in our world. The Bible, like our lives, is not all lambs and rainbows. Our book has to have everything in it–wonder and terror, our worst fears and our best hopes– otherwise it wouldn’t be our book. Maybe one day we will grasp why. Meanwhile, the fundamental hope to which every terror drives us is the hope that, however wrong it all seems, God is present with us, loving us through it all.
So let’s go to the banquet to which we have been invited. Good and bad together, let’s gather around God’s table for a foretaste of the banquet Isaiah describes, where “The Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and death will be swallowed up.” Since this is the banquet to which we are called, and since this mysterious but gracious God is our God, let’s trust that no matter what happens or how afraid we are, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Thanks be to God!
~ Pastor Susan Schneider