St. Martin’s Episcopal Church
Sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Our son, Andy, was married in July in Virginia. His wife, Mary Moore, is a delight and a joy and we are thrilled to have her as part of our family.
As they planned their wedding, they each invited five people to stand with them at the altar on the day of the wedding. Of course, the first question most of these people asked was, “What should I wear?” In answer, Mary Moore said to the women, “Wear an off-white dress, below the knee.” Andy said to the men, “Wear a light-colored sport coat and slacks.”
In contrast to some weddings in which bridesmaids and groomsmen are fairly monochromatic, Andy and Mary Moore desired to have a more motley crew attending them. (“Motley” is a great word. It originally was a noun that meant “woolen fabric of mixed color.” In the late Middle Ages in England, “motley” was the garb worn by professional jesters.)
In the case of this wedding in Virginia, the effect of having wedding clothes of variegated color was unique and beautiful. Andy made one additional request. He asked each groomsmen to wear a green tie, which he gave them as a gift on the night before the wedding. Unfortunately, one of the groomsmen, Phil, lost his tie. So, the group rummaged around a bit and found a blue tie for him to wear instead.
The good thing about this incident is that, as far as I could tell, nobody got bent out of shape because of the lost tie. Nobody was angry. They accepted with good humor the fact that the apparel would be a bit more “motley” than planned. (Although I’ll bet Phil’s friends will never let him forget this faux pas: “Hey, Phil, remember Andy’s wedding? Let’s see now….what color were those ties that the groomsmen all wore?”)
Maybe the story of those wedding ties will help us understand the Gospel for today. It’s a difficult parable. It’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy, with blood and corpses all over the stage by the time the story ends. First, there is lots of killing and then one person gets kicked out of the banquet. What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear away those corpses and get to the crux of the story, which occurs at a wedding banquet. Underneath all of the scary and troublesome details, let’s not forget that the event at the heart of the story is meant to be a joyful occasion.
For many people, one of the most joyful experiences they have is their wedding. Let’s not forget, though, that some weddings do bring out the worst in people. I’ll bet many of you could tell a story about a wedding that had some disastrous incident in it. If you want to read about a real wedding/horror story, I suggest you read the essay by Robert Fulghum in his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It. In his story about he ultimate “Mother of the Bride (MOTB),” Fulghum describes an incredible wedding “with a script for a production that would have met with Cecil B. DeMille’s approval.”
In preparation for this extravaganza, Fulghum met with the bride and groom three times, but fielded calls from the MOTB weekly and found her in his office as often as the cleaning lady. When the day of the wedding finally arrived, the bride was left with her father downstairs during the long orchestral prelude and procession of the bridesmaids. To calm herself, the bride started sampling mints and nuts and olives, then had a cheeseball or two, then some liver pate, washed down with some champagne. Fulghum then describes the bride’s entrance: “What was coming down the aisle was a living grenade with the pin pulled out. (Then) the bride threw up. Just as she walked by her mother.”
It is worth noting that this story has a fairly happy ending, but, as they say, “Talk about your memorable weddings!” In Jesus’ story of a very memorable wedding, a King wanted to have a banquet of joy. “Let’s party!” announced the King. Or, as Paul says in his letter to the Philippians and as we will sing in our last hymn today: “Rejoice!”In the parable, the King is clearly a symbol for God, our God, who wants us to come to the banquet of joy, the banquet of life, the banquet of Reality. And Reality is God-centered. God is at the heart of Reality and it is in God that we find the peace “that surpasses all understanding” and we find our true joy and our true liberation from whatever binds us.
The ancient Hebrews forgot Who was at the heart of their reality. Instead of remembering the God who led them out of slavery, they threw a party for an un-real god, made of gold. So, their banquet at the foot of that holy mountain became a banquet of Unreality. They forgot who they were and who their true God was.
The result: God was angry. In the same way that a parent gets angry when a child makes a very bad decision, God was angry. Parents know how difficult it is to decide what to do when that kind of “wrath” comes to the surface. Each case is different and there is no magic solution in these situations. But one guideline, provided by God in the first reading today is: Don’t destroy the child. Consequences, yes. But don’t “bring disaster “ on the child. That is the bottom line for parents, as it was for God when divine wrath made God want to wring the necks of God’s people, just as parents want to do with an errant child. But, “God changed God’s mind about the disaster.” That’s Good News.
In the case of the Gospel, though, it’s harder to find the Good News. The King “destroys” the people who didn’t come to the banquet. This seems to be a very scary King/God and certainly not one that I want to worship and adore.
But let’s remember an important aspect of this story. When Matthew recorded this story in his Gospel, he was writing at a time when the memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was still etched deeply in his readers’ memory. The Romans had swept into the holy city in 70 C.E. and leveled most of the Temple. Is the devastation in this parable a reminder of the disaster that came upon the people in Jerusalem and is Matthew trying desperately to help his readers make sense of it?
At the time of any disaster, whether a human disaster such as September 11 or a natural disaster such as the recent hurricanes on the Gulf Coast or the terrible earthquake in Pakistan/Kashmir, we want to make sense of it and we agonize over what seems to be God’s absence. We can always spend time with the Book of Job and see that in our tradition, there will not be any simple answers to our questions about evil and disasters.
And there is no simple answer in Matthew’s Gospel. But even amidst the blood and bodies on the stage of the parable for today, Matthew does say that, in spite of the visible evidence, God is still at the center of reality, inviting us all to come to the divine banquet. And only two things are required: (1) show up, and (2) wear the wedding tie that has been given to you. You lost the green one. Oh, well, that’s too bad…..here, have a blue one. Just put it on and join the festivities, OK? And welcome to the party. We’re so glad you are here, no matter who you are or what your past has been or what kind of trouble you have had in your life. Welcome. Rejoice with us, motley crew that we are. We have all been given amazing grace (symbolized by these freely given ties, green and blue and all kinds of other colors), so let’s give thanks for what we have been given and show up at the banquet. It’s a good place to be.