Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Choice

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 9, 2011 - Ordinary (28 A)
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

How many of you remember the song O Be Careful, Little Eyes? Some of you may have sung it as a child or to your children. I’m not sure where or when I first encountered that song, but I have to admit that it has always made me uncomfortable.

O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There's a Father up above
Who’s looking down on you in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see

And it continues with be careful what you hear, what you do, and where you go. The thing that has always made me uncomfortable is that it seems like a set up. God loves me, but God is watching me like a hawk. So, I had better be careful. I have choices to make - and I had better make good ones.

That is the implication of today’s parable; at least that is the traditional interpretation of this parable. God is the King. Jesus is the son. The invited guests are the Jews and their religious leaders. The servants are the prophets - rejected and killed by those God first called to join the heavenly banquet. The people in the street are the poor whom God calls us to care for. The robe is the covering of righteousness that we accept as invited guests. Grace is offered in the reversal of fortune between those who think they are righteous and those who accept God’s righteousness. That all seems pretty reasonable so far, right?

And then there is this guest who does not have a robe. This guest who, for many, represents the part of our character that resists the transformation God offers. This guest, for many, is an example of the type of person who offers a commitment of lip service with no action to back it up. This guest did not come by invitation, but snuck in and did not receive the garment of invitation. This uninvited guest deserves the judgment of the King! This intruder is bound by his own actions and cast into the outer darkness not only by the King’s choice, but also by his own. And then Jesus delivers the real kicker - for many are called, but few are chosen.

Wow. Where is the grace of God in that? Where is the mercy of God in that? For that matter, how can the God who was made incarnate in the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be compared to a capricious and vengeful king that burns entire cities in response to rejection by their leader? Even more so, how can this be the God who said through the prophet Isaiah, “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. This parable of Jesus is about choices, but it is not primarily about our choices. It is a parable about invitation and acceptance, and it is a parable about rejection. However I think there is more to it than meets the eyes - especially when our eyes are wearing the glasses of 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice.

Some scholars have suggested a different view that might be more in keeping with the original audience - whether it be those who witnessed the event first hand or those who read Matthew’s account a generation after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of course we can only guess at who they were and what they heard, but some have suggested - from this perspective - that the king is not God, but rather the Jewish King who was a puppet for the Roman Empire. The King is the Empire. The Empire is the King. As for the rest of them, there were two other movements in Jewish society at that time - the Zealots and the Temple Leaders.

The Zealots were the ones who resist the King and are slaughtered. The Temple Leaders were the ones who conformed and preserved social order. The Temple Leaders were the ones who dutifully put on their robes and nervously attended the banquet after hearing what the King did to the ones who refused.

Who, then, is the uninvited guest who stands silent before the King when asked why he will not conform? Certainly the readers of Matthew’s Gospel would know of Isaiah’s herald of the suffering servant, for John quotes Isaiah at Jesus’ baptism! Certainly the readers of Matthew’s Gospel would see in the following chapters that Jesus stands before Pilot in silence before being stripped of his robe and crucified - killed in a way that all Jews knew was disgraceful. Cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree! Cast out of the covenant is anyone who is killed in this way!

So what does it mean for us today to say that Jesus is this suffering servant by whose stripes we are healed? Certainly it means that those who accept this gift and repent will be joined in the heavenly banquet. But where does it connect with the here and now?

We live in a time in which many are more concerned with their own needs than they are with the needs of others - an accusation made by people on every side of every issue. We live in a time with much anger. We live in a time of war and protest. We live in a time of conflict between generosity and expectation. We live in a time of conflict between social contracts and individual rights. We live in a time where there is great poverty and great wealth. We live in a time where there is both rejection and acceptance of individuals and groups based on their expression of certain values, and we live in a time that only differs from any other by the size of our population. For as it says in Ecclesiastes, “All is a vanity and a chasing after the wind. There is nothing new under the sun.”

We have always been this way, and in some ways we always will be. Whether we fight and resist or conform and adapt, there is only one who has ever embodied the will of God - and that is Jesus Christ! So we approximate his actions when we suffer for and with others. We approximate his actions when we refuse to conform to powers that subjugate and divide.

Sometimes we must be silent to demonstrate the power of God that is made perfect in weakness.

Sometimes we must speak.

Always we must be willing to risk. Always we must take heart in the choice that is before all choices - the choice that God made to love and accept us no matter what!

We do live in a politically charged time, and I do not believe it is my right or responsibility to tell you what to do or how to vote. I believe this is where Paul’s statement from earlier in Philippians comes in. You must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Yet we - as a congregation - still have opportunities to make public statements. In fact we - as a congregation - can’t help but offer a public witness. That is why Paul urged such union in the church in Philippi. It was as if he was saying, “Psst! Guys! People are watching!” Any parent knows how important it is to have a unified response to conflict. Even the littlest ones on my 5yr old son’s soccer team are starting to see the value in a unified witness!

And we have one here. We have one in our expression of care for the needy in our community. We have a unified witness in our offering of hospitality to others. We have one in our willingness to be vulnerable to others and coordinate ministries that we simply cannot do without the support of other partner congregations! Last Friday I saw a good example of it.

In fact, I could have sworn that I saw Jesus bound for others. I could have sworn that the baskets of unwanted books, donated items, and hand made scarves in our Christmas Basket ministry contained the incarnate presence of God. As CUPS Elves lovingly secured the baskets in clear plastic and colorful ribbon, it seemed to me that the things bound and cast out had been transformed into that which gives hope to the hopeless.

You see, we do not know whom it is that God has chosen - but we know that they include the bad and the good. We know that it is not something that can be earned. We know that salvation is about the choice God has made for us and that all of our choices flow from that one choice. We know that our public witness is to invite others in and to demonstrate the love of God for all. We know that we must come to some agreements at times in order to demonstrate God’s love through specifically intentional actions. And we know that our individual lives must be ordered according to that same purpose.

Above all, we know that our task is not simply to accept the invitation of God, but to live as a gathered community that expresses the invitation of God. For in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

May it be so with you. May it be so with me, and to God be the glory. Amen.
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