Of Wedding Invitations and Obituaries

This sermon is from October 9, 2010; Proper 23A, Matthew 22:1-14. It is a fairly direct transcript of the sermon preached, probably still typo-ridden. I hope that beyond the carelessness of my typing skills, you will find something that speaks to you.

As we gathered last week, I shared with you that I was not crazy about preaching on Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants. This week offers more of the same. Such a wonderful, uplifting parable: entire towns being burned to the ground, people being bound hand and foot, weeping and gnashing of teeth. It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, doesn’t it?

I’ve often thought that if Jesus was a preacher, he wouldn’t have a job for very long.

Then I remember. Jesus was a preacher, and he didn’t have a job for very long. In fact, as we look at this parable, Jesus is preaching in Jerusalem – and this is not very long before his job as a preacher comes to an abrupt end. It is not very long – after sermons like this one this morning, and parables like this – that Jesus winds up turned over to the authorities.

So what are we to do with this parable of the wedding banquet, this sermon of Jesus?

This parable fits, in many ways, with what we have heard for the last month as we have been walking through the parables of Jesus.

One of my mentors used to say: if you’re a good preacher and you’re lucky – you’ve got three good sermons in you. The rest are variations just on those.
And this is a variation of the same sermon that Jesus has been preaching.

Jesus tells how the invitations to the wedding banquet went out, and the people would not come. And so the servants went out and they gathered all of these people off of the streets: the homeless folks, the ones with no party to go to on a Saturday night, the people that no one else wanted to spend time with. Went out and gathered them and brought them into the party.

And this was this one guy, who wasn’t wearing what he wasn’t supposed to be wearing. This one guy, who wasn’t wearing the traditional wedding clothes. And so he gets thrown out.

You have to ask, as Jesus is preaching this parable: What’s the problem here? What is the problem with this one guy?

I think we can find the answer looking at how this fits with those other parables we have heard. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the two sons – one who works and one who does not, the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Jesus is talking, if you recall, to and about the Pharisees and the religious leaders.

Jesus is talking to the Pharisees: these people who went to great lengths to express their faith publicly – who said all of the right words and all of the right prayers – who could go down the checklist, and assure you that they believed all of the right things – who every knew spent plenty of time in the Temple, in church. These people who made sure that they dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and did all those nice things, the right things, that good religious people are supposed to do.

So once again, Jesus is preaching with these Pharisees in mind. And I have a feeling that the issue is the same as it has been as we have listened to the rest of the parables this month.

The issue is not what you say … but what you do.
The issue for Jesus is the number of people who talk about how important God is and how important faith is and how important religion is … and then treat others as if none of that matters.
The issue over and over again in Matthew’s Gospel is the greatest commandment. There are plenty of us who are willing to say that we love the Lord God with all their heart and soul and mind. But then we ignore the second half: love your neighbor as yourself.

The issue, to paraphrase Martin Luther, is that you cannot love God without also loving your neighbor. Jesus’ issue this morning is with those of us who profess loudly and strongly that we love God – and then ignore our neighbor.

If you were paying attention to the news last week, there was a rather prominent death last week. Did you catch the obituary? No, not Steve Jobs. Another, more important loss.

Last week, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died, and I want to share some of Pastor Shuttlesworth’s story with you.

Fred Shuttlesworth was the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. During the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, Pastor Shuttlesworth was near death many times: when he was beat up by the clan, and by the police, and when his congregation – his church – was bombed.

Shuttlesworth mug shot from the night
of the Freedom Rider protests.
Seven years before Martin Luther King, Jr visited Birmingham, before Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus, before most of the nation had awoken to the great inequality between black and white in the South, before it all, Pastor Shuttlesworth was working against hate; teaching us what Jesus meant when he said, “love your neighbor.” Shuttlesworth led the way, teaching the church – both black and white – how non-violent resistance could be used to defeat segregation.

I once had the opportunity to meet and hear Pastor Shuttlesworth, and since hearing of his death one of the things he said just sticks with me – one of the things he said just haunts me. He said that
there is so much theology – so many words spoken about God – there is so much theology in our world that is really and truly a theology without morality, a theology without commitment, and ultimately, a theology without a god.
Because if your theology – if your words about God – if your theology is about the God that the Gospels proclaim, it changes your life.

If your theology, your words about God, are about the God that Jesus proclaims, about the God o Exodus and resurrection, the God of the cross, then it will change how you interact with every person you meet. It will change how you look at this world that God has made, and how you look at the people who God loves so dearly. And if it doesn’t – then you are talking about a different god!

I think Jesus is talking this morning in the parable of the wedding banquet – in all of these parables that we have been hearing – about how faith is so often a lot of nice words, and good feelings, and nice sentiment … and nothing else.

And Jesus is challenging us to say about our faith: forget about what’s coming out of your mouth – how are you treating the people in your life? How are you treating the people around you in the world? How are you praying for and loving your enemy?

How is what you believe about God making a difference in the world?

And those who don’t believe. If they looked at your life – not your words – if they looked at how you live, what sort of god would they say you believe in?

Look at the news last week – is yours the god who praises those who make the most money? The god who remembers a man like Steve Jobs with praise and adulation, but forgets a man like Fred Shuttlesworth?

Is yours the god who looks out for number one? The god who makes sure that only those who earn the most deserve love and health and happiness?

Or is the god that our lives proclaim – as we heard from St. Paul – the God of whatever is pure and just and good? Or is the god that our lives proclaim the God who is love, and calls us to lives that shaped by love above all things?

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve been troubled this week.
There’s a great phrase: “A holy discomfort.” That sense of being uncomfortable, of things not being quite right, but know it’s a good thing and you know it’s God. Fred Shuttlesworth has left me this week with a holy discomfort.

Another thing Pastor Shuttlesworth once said is, “I say very little about anything, until I am ready to act – and I think more people should be like that.”

Are you and I ready to act on our faith? Are you and I ready to clothe ourselves for God’s wedding banquet in love for our neighbor? Are we ready to show up at God’s table, not with good words and nice feelings, but with lives transformed by God’s love? Are we ready to risk everything – everything – to show the world God’s love?

I want to share with you one more story from the life of Pastor Shuttlesworth.

Shortly before I heard Pastor Shuttlesworth, the last of the Klansmen responsible for the bombings in Birmingham had finally been convicted, some 50 years later. This man who had been responsible for countless deaths and acts of hate – including the bombing of Shuttlesworth’s own church.

Someone asked Pastor Shuttlesworth, “Do you hate white people?”
Shuttlesworth responded, “Man, you’re asking the wrong question.”
But the inquirer persisted, referring to the man just convicted. “With everything you have been through, it would be understandable – justifiable – if you hated white people.”

“Friend,” said Shuttlesworth, “I can not say that I love Jesus, and then hate white people. I cannot say that I love Jesus and hate. Let me tell you, if it wasn’t for a man named Bull Connor, I wouldn’t know Jesus as well as I know him today. So how can I hate Bull Connor – I give thanks for him.”

That … That is living into the faith that Jesus proclaimed. That is what it looks like to take seriously the words of Jesus – the words that we profess in this place – about the love of our neighbor.

And I’m troubled. I am troubled by that.
I am troubled by the life and words and witness of Pastor Shuttlesworth, because I know that I’m not there.

I know that I’m not there. I know that I don’t live my life with the love that I should. I’m troubled.
But it is a holy discomfort, because I know that God is calling me – God is calling us – to more. God is calling us to lives of more love.
God is calling us to lives that make a difference.
God is calling us to change this world.

And so I pray.
I pray that God will give me the grace to live that sort of life, because that’s the only way we can do it: with God’s help. I’m sure not going to do it on my own – I need God to show me the way.
I pray that God will give me the courage – that God will give me the strength – to risk everything for Jesus’ love, and for the people whom God loves.

I pray that God will continue to give me – to give all of us – a holy discomfort, so that I am not satisfied with indifference and inaction, so that when I show up at that great wedding banquet, that when God welcomes me to the table, I will be properly clothed in all of God’s love.