Sunday, October 15, 2017

And He Was Speechless (Sermon)

“And He Was Speechless”
Matthew 22:1-14
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t like Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the wedding banquet. I much prefer Luke’s kinder, gentler version. So, before reading the story, we’re going to spend some time understanding the context. Let’s back up to the middle of chapter 21.
         In Matthew 21:12-17 Jesus drives the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. Holding the temple leaders responsible for the spiritual and ecclesiastical defilement of Israel, we Christians use a loaded word; we call it the “cleansing of the temple.” Choosing the word cleansing, opens the door not only to pride among Jesus’ disciples, but also to the insidious phobia of anti-Semitism.
         Jesus takes a profound risk in chasing these folks out of the temple. And while he’s clearly furious, it seems to me that his fury is the scream of his heart breaking. I don’t hear him saying, ‘All of you are bad people!’ I hear him saying, ‘This is not who you are! You’re better than this, and you know it!’
The people aren’t evil. The problem is the institution. It has become an organism with a life of its own. It consumes resources, like a fig tree, maybe – in particular, a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit. Existing for itself, the institution no longer carries out the purpose of blessing that dates back to the call of Abraham.
         The morning after Jesus empties the temple of merchants and moneychangers, he curses a fig tree that has no fruit. It seems harsh, perhaps, but a figless fig tree is good for kindling and compost, and not much else. Similarly, a spiritless spiritual community is nothing but a building and a consumer of resources. It’s no different than any other social or civic club that collects dues and engages in a little conspicuous altruism. A spiritless spiritual community has given up on mystery, holiness, and its for-the-sake-of-others blessedness. It has also abandoned its prophetic voice.
         After cursing the fig tree, Jesus returns to the temple. Offended, the spiritual leaders confront Jesus. They question his authority, and Jesus ends up telling them that tax collectors and prostitutes have higher and holier standing than they do. Then Jesus tells them the parable of the wicked tenants. In this story, a landowner sends his servants then his son to collect a harvest. After the workers kill the servants and the son, the landowner executes all the workers.
“Therefore I tell you,” says Jesus to the spiritual leaders, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Mt. 21:43) Do you hear the connection to the story of the fig tree, to the cleansing of the temple, and to the call of Abraham?
The spiritual leaders want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowds who love Jesus. Enslaved to their power within the institution, those spiritual leaders say nothing.
Jesus plows straight into his next parable, today’s text. It’s another strange and difficult story spoken into a rising tide of anxiety and emotion. Matthew is leading us toward a flashpoint in the conflict between Jesus and power. It will be called Friday.

Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’
 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’
And he was speechless.
13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Initially, the conservative Pharisee in me cringes because these stories are aimed at me. The progressive, 21st century Christian rankles at the violent image of God. The only side of me that likes them is that smug, bigoted, first-world religionist who looks for any reason to fear and judge others for being different from me. For being Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or in any other way non-Christian (at least relative to me), or for being un-American (at least relative to me), or for having a skin color darker than mine, or for posing what I interpret as a threat to everything that I hold dear. That smug, bigoted, first-world religionist in me always hears Jesus taking my side in his stories. That guy always assumes that God is as small, vindictive, and merciless as I can be.
I come face-to-face with that guy almost daily. Like those who have been invited to the wedding banquet, he makes light of the invitation. He’s more interested in looking busy in his office than he is in following Jesus. Like a shark who smells blood, he enters the feeding frenzy of acrimony and insult where neighbors attack each other with guns, clubs, automobiles, and most insidiously, with their words – often spoken through social media, which is becoming, in many ways, a fiercely anti-social force in our culture.
When I stand before that smug, bigoted, first-world religionist in me, and in others, when I see the carnage around me, I tend to lose my voice. I become a speechless wedding-crasher. Why? I tell myself that I’m just trying, in trying times, to hold together a congregation of disparate theological and political opinions. That’s not a bad goal – unless all I’m really trying to do is hold onto my job, my benefits. Then I choose speechlessness and call it pastoral sensitivity. But whom does a speechless disciple really serve? Whom do I really love and worship? Whom do I really trust?
When Jesus faces opposition, he never chooses speechlessness. At the risk of his life, Jesus speaks. And he inspires the adage that states, quite accurately, that “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”1
         When the king in the parable confronts the man who has no robe, the man is “speechless.” He says nothing about the selfishness of those who ignored the invitation. He says nothing about the injustices of all that bloody murder and revenge. He says nothing.
         Is it possible that the words he could have uttered – words of gratitude and congratulations for the bride and the groom, words of compassion for all who had been killed, words of solidarity with the guests – could it be that such words, spoken with conviction and love, weave the wedding robe?
         I’m not advocating any kind of works righteousness. We don’t earn our invitation to the banquet. The parable is not about who’s in and who’s out with regard to salvation. It’s about who accepts the call to live as “chosen” ones, bearers of visible and audible fruits of prophetic faith, even as Friday looms. It’s about living as embodied speech, declaring that the wedding banquet has been prepared and that all are welcome.
         Thomas Merton took a vow of silence. And when he did, he closed his mouth once and for all. But his spirited life was all about speaking, all about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
Our words and actions are figs. They’re the fruit of our faithfulness. What we say and don’t say are not the difference between our being accepted and rejected by God. Only a god made in our image withholds grace. But speechlessness is not an option for disciples. Speaking truth and justice to power in the institution may get us in trouble, because power doesn’t want to hear “politics” in church. Power forgets how consistently political Jesus is. Our speech – our patient, humble, honest, challenging speech – is both our robe of righteousness to wear and our cross to bear. Our speech cries out to humankind, “We are better than this, and we know it!”
         If we have said Yes to the question, “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior,” we have a new voice with which to proclaim our discipleship and to weave our wedding robes. If all we want is a Savior, someone to save us from personal sins, we’ll be satisfied with speechlessness, even in the face of injustice.
If Jesus is our Lord, however, Lord of our lives, we have spirited words to say and spirited work to do. Here. Now. Today.