[I preached this sermon on August 21, 2016 at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell/Pearl River, LA]
God’s Rom Com
Text: Isaiah 58
If you google “why doesn’t God bless me”, a lot of pages come up. Almost all of them say basically the same thing: God doesn’t give you what you want because you haven’t grown up enough, or you're not patient enough, or you have something else you have to work through first, or maybe you’re asking for the wrong thing, like, maybe instead of asking for a car, you should ask for a minivan. In short, if God doesn’t bless you, it’s basically your fault. You’re just not holy enough.
You can google “why doesn’t God bless my church”, but you end up with most of the same pages. I actually think that last question gets asked a lot, but probably not on a public website or forum.
I know this might come as a shock to you, but the internet is wrong.
I know. Who’d a thought?
A lot of our attitude about blessing comes from jealousy, I think. Or maybe self-entitlement. We think if other people, people who are, quite frankly, complete jerks, get to vacation in the south of France, then good, church-going, God-fearing, flag-waving people like us ought to also. We think God ought to be as impressed with us and our church as we are.
Well, here’s the thing, and why the internet is wrong about this. God is actually more impressed with us, and with our church, than we are. God is actually very impressed with you. God loves you as much as God knows how, or in other words, as much as possible. God looks at you and smiles. You are God’s creation, and God called God’s creation “very good.”
And in Isaiah 58, God tells you about God’s love.
Oh, you didn’t catch it? God does sound really mad.
Well, God is angry here, but not angry in the “you-worthless-slime-why-don’t-you-go-hide-under-a-rock” way, but in the “I-can’t-believe-you’re-putting-ketchup-on-that-$100-Kobe-steak” way.
God is so in love with us that God can’t stand to see us throw our beautiful, amazing lives away on things that, well frankly, make us look ugly.
It’s like in some romantic comedy (rom com, for short).
You know the kind of thing: like Sleepless in Seattle or Love Actually.
Let’s get some tissue handy and watch.
It’s a really good one, the kind of movie that captures you, draws you in, like you’re actually in the movie.
Let’s skip ahead to the part where the girl finds the boy broken and bruised and defeated and sick on the ground in some alley. She takes his face in her hands, and tells him how much she loves him, how he looks in her eyes.
God wipes the dirt from our face and says to stop trying to be so doggone holy and pious. “Stop trying so hard,” God says. “You had me from the moment I set eyes on you.”
I know, you want to impress God with your feats of strength. It seems like showing up at every church event and bringing the name of Jesus into every conversation and putting religious stickers on everything you own and posting smug, self-righteous religious comments on facebook ought to make God act like Sally Field at the Oscars (“You like me! You really like me!”) and then like Oprah Winfrey (“YOU get a blessing and YOU get a blessing and YOU get a blessing!”), but it doesn’t.
God’s love for you isn’t at all dependent on your love for God, much (MUCH) less on your demonstrated love for God. Yelling “Jesus loves me and so do I,” doesn’t make you look dashing and heroic. It makes you look childish and insecure.
Then in that alleyway, God holding our face in her hands, God spells out the kind of things we do, or things we could do, which show off all the beautiful things about us that God already loves.
God says we really show off when we value workers (no matter their salary or status), when we treat them as people, instead of like business expenses or tools we can manipulate and use. That’s so important, God mentions it twice. Treating the janitor or waitress with as much respect and dignity as we treat the CEO or president is really showing off, God says.
The camera pans a bit, centering frame on God’s adoring face. God says, “I love the way you look when you use religion and the church to bring people together, rather than using the church and your religious knowledge to drive wedges between people.” God says peacemakers are so much more attractive than warmongers, even if it’s a culture war or a holy war or a just war or whatever.
God says, “I love to look into your eyes when you break the chains of injustice.” God mentions that twice too. When God says we are to “free the oppressed,” injustice is what God’s talking about.
Just a quick note, though. When God speaks through the prophets of injustice, God’s not talking about that guy in front of you at the grocery with 21 items in the 20-or-less lane, or those kids that won’t get off your lawn. God’s talking about economic and social injustice, the kind where people are brought low, kept starving, and told they are worthless so that the powerful can be comfortable and feel good about themselves.
But back to the movie:
God helps us get to our feet and straightens our sport jacket. God says, “You know, I think you’re at your most handsome when you cancel debts, just write them off. Forgiveness makes you look dashing.”
God says, “You put the sunset to shame when you feed, clothe and house people.” God repeats that too. “Taking care of people is so attractive,” God says with a little smile that melts our heart.
God says, “Remember that Sabbath thing we do? I love that.” Not just taking a day off so we can do a little networking with the boss. God says God loves us resting in God’s competence, having enough faith in God to regularly stand back and enjoy the world we’ve been given.
God says, “I can’t get over how fantastic you are when you share your lives with your parents and your kids -- and your brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandkids and cousins too. I love it when you’re more concerned with each other than you are with being right all the time.”
Then, God frowns a bit and the camera pans back. The background music changes subtly.. “You think you’re acting like some kind of important muckety-muck when you manipulate laws to ensure your own ease and security at the expense of others, but it doesn’t mean you’re important. It mens you’re cruel. Stop doing that. I hate it.”
God says, “You’re downright ugly when you make the poor and the lost and the lonely and the outsider think that they’re to blame for everything that happens to them.” God says, “I hate it when you call people you’ve never met freeloaders or lazy or dangerous. That is not the way a beautiful creation of God acts.”
God says, “Gossipping too. You do that a lot and I hate it.” God says, “I mean, why do you think the only way to make me think highly of you is to try to make everyone think less of someone else?”
God says to value people instead of using them. God says to be willing to change our own lives in response to the people around us, even people we don’t trust or like. God says to bring people together, instead of separating them into enemy camps.
The camera pauses a moment on God’s face...
And then, some guy in the fourth row stops munching on his popcorn long enough to shout at the screen, “Hey! What about sin?”
Clearly a Presbyterian.
When I was a teenager, I learned that sin was, and I quote, “anything that separates us from God.”
Only nothing can separate us from God. God won’t allow it. That’s what Jesus’s death and resurrection is all about. God will die for us rather than let us go away. Like in the old song, “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.”
Sin is disappointing to God, even frustrating to God.
It’s drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, pouring salt on a king cake.
We could be these amazing, wonderful people, but we spend all our time trying to prove that we’re more worthy of God’s love than that schmuck over there.
Thankfully, the woman in front of the Presbyterian with the popcorn turns around and goes, “Shhh!”
Clearly another Presbyterian.
In the movie, God starts talking again, brushing the hair out of her face. But she doesn’t say what we think she will. God doesn’t promise that feeding the hungry and treating all people with respect and dignity will increase our bank account balances. God doesn’t promise that forgiving debt and being available to our family will make us a household name. God doesn’t promise that caring for the poor will make our lives easier.
God does make promises though:
“You’re going to give light to the world,” God says.
“You’re going to be full even when everything else is empty,” God says.
“You are going to bloom and grow,” God says.
And then the most amazing promise: God says, “You’ll see that the life you had before you started showing what a handsome guy you are, that life is beautiful too. The mistakes and stupid things and ‘wasted’ years you went through will be the foundation for something amazing.
“In other words,” God says, “you’ll understand that I loved you all along.”
And God keeps talking!
“Then,” God says, “you’ll bring life and love and community to others. Even if people can’t stand the sight of you, they’ll realize that you can rebuild ruins, make chandeliers out of shards. And you’ll see life forming around you, and you’ll wonder where it came from.”
God says, “This is who you are. You are beautiful, amazing, awe-inspiring creations that I, who created the world, I love you so much that the world seems too small to contain my heart for you.”
And then God is quiet for a moment, breathing hard.
The movie dissolves to a shot of us, bruises mysteriously healed and hair mysteriously combed as happens in movies like this.
What are we going to say?
This summer, we fed and gave value and love to nearly 30 families who needed all of that. We’re joining with other churches to bring food to hungry people in Pearl River. We’re giving books and supplies and love and more to children in the Philippines most of us will almost certainly never meet, kids who the world at large passes by with a click of the tongue. We’ve made totes and blankets for people who need them, and, just as importantly, we’ve prayed for them and showed them that they mean something. In a few weeks, we’re going to walk -- no, we’re going to march -- along the Mandeville lakefront and show everyone we see that hunger is a problem and that we can solve it. And we’re just starting.
Of course, the camera is not just on us at Northminster.
In Georgia a few months ago, a gas station and convenience store was bought by an India-born Muslim immigrant named Malike Waliyani. His store was burglarized and damaged. He could barely keep it going. Nearby was Smoke Rise Baptist Church. The camera was on them.
“Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” their pastor, Chris George, said. More than 200 people started going the store to help, buying stuff. One guy drove around until his car was out of gas just so he could buy gas from Mr. Waliyani.
“Our faith inspires us to build bridges,” Pastor George said. “Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace each other in love.”
But the camera comes back to us as the focus softens and the music swells.
This past week, rains fell and flooded the homes of thousands of people, pushing people already close to survival’s edge even closer or beyond it. This is terrible. But, if you look around, you’ll see hundreds, even thousands of people reaching out to these folks, bringing them clothes and food and shelter. We’re going to be part of that. Of course we are. Our Katrina offering, the offering where we remember the gifts and sacrifices of people who helped us through the hurricane, the grace God showed us. That money goes to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which helps people all over the world, and people right here, who need help. And we’re going to find more ways to help, too.
It’s what we do.
And one more thing, before the camera fades to the scene where God walks away with us, arm-and-arm.
A while back, a broken, pitiful child of God walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed 50 people, including himself. While many were shocked and hurt and tried to figure out what to say, a bunch of other people laughed and applauded because they thought the killer had made the world better by taking culture back. And the fact that the shooter was some kind of Muslim made it all the sweeter to them.
But then, thousands… no… no… hundreds of thousands of people loved by God did make the world better by reaching out with love and grief and compassion to the families and friends and lovers of the victims, letting them know that they, and the loved ones they lost, are valued for who they are and worth more than anyone can imagine. These people took the rubble they found, and they’re building a city.
The camera’s on us too. We have ministered to, loved, and nurtured gay men in this congregation, and we’ve done it as if it was no big deal, but it’s time we do more. No one knows that this is who we are if we don’t tell people that this is who we are. Gay and lesbian and transexual and bisexual and non-binary people will not know that this is a community of faith who values them as people unless we tell them, because they will assume that when we see them, we see an issue and not a person. We need to say, formally, in large letters. “We’re a church that loves gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual and non-binary people.”
But whatever we do, we’re not going to do it because God’s going to be mad if we don’t. We’re doing this because we love the way God looks at us.
[I preached this sermon at Nortminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell/Pearl River, Louisiana on May 1, 2016.]
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
Text: John 5:1-18
No one heard his cries.
At least, that’s what he thought.
The Bible doesn’t speak his name, but we’re going to talk a lot about him, so let’s call him Reginald, because I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name.
For 38 years (38 years!), Reginald lay helpless, as the world went by day by day.
Even Job, with all his troubles, had friends who came by and tried to help, clueless as they were.
Not so with Reginald: No friends, no mercy, no help.
He lay by the pool whose name in Hebrew and Aramaic means “house of mercy” or “house of grace”, and also “house of shame” or “house of disgrace.”
I imagine Reginald felt lots of shame and disgrace. People who feel less than whole often feel ashamed and disgraced.
I don’t think Reginald felt much mercy or grace.
At least, not until Jesus turned turned the world upside down for him.
If you’re like me, maybe you remember more to this story. In fact (a little bit of trivia here), you might notice that there is no John 5:4 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or many other Bible versions.
The missing bit (which spills into part of verse 3), tells a story about how an angel would stir up the waters in the pool from time to time, and whichever sick person won the race to get into the pool first would get healed.
The editors of many newer Bibles leave the story out because it’s just not found in the oldest versions of the Gospel of John. It seems that hundreds of years after the gospel was first put on paper some scribe or priest or monk somewhere decided he needed an explanation for what was going on with the water, and just added one in.
It turns out, there was a good reason why lots of sick people would have made their way to the Pool of Bethesda, and it had nothing to do with angels -- at least not the kind of angels with wings.
The Greeks had a god named Asclepius. (I practiced saying that name.) He was the god of medicine. In the old myths Asclepius could cure people of practically anything.
It was even said that, at least for a while, Asclepius had gone around bringing people back from the dead.
Then Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, complained (jerk!). He was afraid it would get lonely in Hell.
So Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, made Asclepius cut it out.
But anyway, Asclepius had a number of real, honest-to-the-real-God human followers called “therapeutae” (for men) or “therapeutrides” (for women). (I practiced saying those words too…) It meant “someone who heals.” The word “therapy” comes from the same Greek word. The therapeutae and therapeutrides, as followers of Asclepius, were committed to medicine and healing. And, it turns out, they were actually pretty good at it, considering the times.
There was a complex with a couple of baths in some natural caves just north of Jerusalem. At least one of these baths was dedicated to Asclepius, managed by his therapeutae and therapeutrides. It was near the Sheep Gate, near the Temple of the true God, a gate handy for bringing in sheep for sacrifice. Part of the complex was a pool with four colonnades, separated in the middle by another one. A pool called Beth-zatha or Bethesda.
If you were sick in the time of Jesus, you could do much worse than look for help at this pool. There were people there who might be willing and able to help you.
Angels, of a sort.
Only there are some people whom the angels often seem to ignore:
- People who are sick and have no way to get care,
- People who are starving,
- People who are homeless,
- People who are addicted to drugs like alcohol,
- People who yearn to end their life.
Reginald, kind of the patron saint of the therapeutically ignored, lies there on his mat year after year, sick, friendless, and helpless at the pool of grace and disgrace.
Jesus walks up to this man and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Reginald does not answer the question directly. He doesn’t say, “yes.” In fact, he seems to me to be a little confused. He just starts telling Jesus his life story.
Now, in the Gospel of John, it's actually kind of unusual for someone to ask a simple question and get a simple answer. Still, this question (“Do you want to be made well?”) is odd, even for John.
While Jesus heals something like 30 or 40 people in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), this is the only time he ever uses that phrase. “Do you want to be made well?”
It must have been confusing to hear an obviously Jewish man ask a question like that in this pagan place so near to the Jerusalem temple. And Jesus asked it on the Sabbath, a day Jews dedicated to rest and study, a day where work like healing was, for the most part, forbidden.
Reginald must have thought this might be some kind of test or trap. So he doesn’t say “yes” or “no”. He tells Jesus who he is, or, at least, who he thinks he is: a man defined by 38 years of sickness and rejection.
And Jesus says, “No, that’s not who you are.”
Except not in those words. He says, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”
With Christ’s words and God’s healing, the world Reginald was in, the world where he was imprisoned on a mat, sick and pathetic and not worth the attention of anyone, was over. Over. The world was now one where Reginald was healed, and strong, and a political problem for some of the most important people in Jerusalem, who found him to be a dangerous threat to all that is holy because he’s walking around with a mat on a Sabbath.
And Reginald did nothing to make this happen. Nothing at all. For 38 years, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless, and when Jesus stood over him, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless.
And Jesus healed him anyway.
Although I am far from sick and friendless and poor, I still long for Jesus to ask me, “Do you want to be made well?”
Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.
There are a hundred parts of me that disappoint me or lessen me or scare me. I’m not stuck on a mat, but I am far from well. I’m still a nerdy weirdo who has a demon on his back continuously shouting in my ear, “You don’t belong here. No one wants you here.” And I am completely helpless to heal myself.
Now, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you need healing too. We all do. This is a broken world that breaks people along jagged edges that cut deep. I am broken. You are broken. There’s stuff inside us that we’re carefully hiding ourselves, from the world, even from God.
Reginald, on his mat fumbling out an answer to a simple question that sounded like a trap, is right there with us, except he can’t hide his jagged edges very well. Reginald, sick and helpless and alone, all but hopeless. And even though Reginald sounds kind of whiny and pathetic, and even though Reginald doesn’t really present himself confidently and in the best light as so many people say a man should, and even though Reginald doesn’t say, “Yes, I want to be made well,” Jesus heals him anyway.
“Stand up, take your mat, and walk,” Jesus says.
Jesus heals. Jesus heals.
In that way, Jesus is more like those pagan followers of the Greek god Asclepius than he is like the self-important self-righteous pious religious experts who claim to know God and question his every move.
And Jesus is what Asclepius never was: real. The followers of Asclepius could do their best to patch up the wounds, just as we can do, but God in Christ can, and WILL, heal those the angels don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you think you’re incurable, if whatever it is that’s broken in you, whatever it is that’s breaking you, is big and scary and hairy with sharp teeth, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you feel lost and alone, if people call you ugly or strange or creepy or whatever, if people are scared of you. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you disappoint people or if you disappoint yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’ve screwed things up over and over again and you’re so sorry, so terribly sorry. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you ask for healing, or wonder if you really want to be healed, or have given up hope and don’t even want to bother anymore, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
Now, from my point of view, my broken, sinful point of view, I’d just as soon God in Christ would just send the Holy Spirit right now to heal those broken parts of me, and those broken parts of you, and those broken parts of us, right now, right now, and we would stand up, healed and new and free from all that is broken and jagged inside us and we would take our mats, and we would walk as whole, healed people. Now. Right now.
Nope. Didn’t happen. But still, I know it will.
I could tell you a story now, about some seemingly miraculous healing. But then I could tell you another one about someone who is still waiting, still lying on whatever passes for a mat to them, or someone who has died waiting for someone to make them well.
I don’t think I can prove to you that the risen Christ will heal you, or me, or anyone. I can’t even prove it to myself.
And yet I know it’s true.
But it’s also true that not everyone wants it to be true.
I remember the TV show M*A*S*H, a show about a mobile surgical hospital in the Korean War. Now and then, one doctor or other would get in trouble for healing an enemy combatant, or even an enemy civilian.
For some, and especially those who feel threatened and insecure, healing should only be taken to a point. And the kind of free, unbidden healing given to people who don’t seem to deserve it -- well, that’s way over the line.
I kind of misled you a bit a while back with the Asclepius story. I said that, when Asclepius started raising people from the dead, and Hades (jerk!) complained, Zeus made him cut it out.
That’s a bit of an understatement. In many versions of the story, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt, then throws him up into the stars.
You see, the world appears to work as the Greek myths said it does: healing is often the enemy of power, and must have its limits. A healer who heals everyone must die.
Yet, the gospels tell a different story: Jesus, the healer who can heal everyone, does die, but God IS the healer for the sake of all of us. And God, the dead healer, is raised by God’s power.
It doesn’t bother God that Hell would be emptied.
Yes, this is a broken world, but it will be healed. We are broken, but we will be healed.
And, even more, even while we are all broken, we can be part of the Holy Spirit’s healing.
We can echo the words of Jesus and the pagan healers and ask one another “Do you want to be made well?”
And then we can join with Christ and do what we can to heal the world.
John says something else odd, much later.
When Jesus washes the disciples feet at the last supper, the word for “wash” isn’t the usual one.
It’s the Greek word that meant washing in the baths and pools of the followers of Asclepius, it’s a word that means washing in order to be healed.
When Jesus serves his apostles, washing their feet, when Christ serves us, loving us even to the point of dying for us, he is healing us.
I know we’re not completely healed now.
But we will be.
[The title of the sermon was intentionally chosen to look like a Big Bang Theory episode title.]
The Clothing Catastrophe
Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church on February 7, 2016
Text: Matthew 21:45 - 22:15
Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church on February 7, 2016
Text: Matthew 21:45 - 22:15
Well, one thing to learn from this story is this: If you receive a wedding invitation, you should NOT kidnap, torture, and straight-up murder the mail man. Such conduct is… frowned upon.
I think there's more to find in this text, but you gotta start somewhere.
Did you ever wonder, though, why these people would react so violently to an invitation to a lavish feast?
Last summer, I got to attend a conference of something called 1001 New Worshipping Communities. (The only way you would not already know that is if we hadn’t spoken much in the last six months.) 1001 is a movement in the Presbyterian church to try to find ways to reach outsiders, outliers, and misfits, and bring them into, well, new worshipping communities.
1001 is not a cookbook for developing new churches. It’s not yet another “church self-help program,” only for new churches. 1001 is a community trying to bring Christ’s love and transformation to folks that the world, and even the church, have ignored, forgotten, and/or excluded.
One of the things we did at the conference was hold a Bible study early each morning, before the keynote and all. The individual members varied from day to day, but there were always about twelve of us. Today’s text was one of the ones we studied. You can probably see why.
The idea of God, or even some random king, inviting people off the streets to a wonderful banquet neatly meshes with the hopes and dreams of a group of people who spend their time, careers, hearts and souls on folks who are ignored, forgotten, and excluded, especially if many of these people have themselves been ignored, forgotten, and excluded. At first glance, this is a story of comfort for us.
At first glance, the king is God and the kingdom of heaven is the way things are supposed to be, and God’s banquet is open to all! (Well, at least all those who don’t kill postal employees, but we’ll leave that for the moment.)
But there's a problem with the ending. You know, the part where the king confronts a man who the king thinks isn’t properly dressed. Keep in mind that this guy was on the streets before the banquet, and will be on the streets after the banquet is over. The king walks up to THIS guy and says, “Friend, how’d you get past the bouncer with those ugly duds?” And when the man is silent, the king has him tied up and thrown out. “Many are called,” the king says, “but few are chosen.”
Never mind that, except for the “tied up” part, the man ends up basically no worse off than when the story started. He was outside before, he’s outside now, and he never really “deserved” to be invited anyway.
Never mind that the clothes might have been given to him by the king and he, for some reason, rejected them.
I can’t help but see myself in this underdressed banquet guest. And I told that to the 1001 Bible study.
You see, literally or metaphorically, I don’t wear clothes well. No one has ever called me a “fashionista.” It doesn’t matter if I bought the clothes myself or if someone else got them for me. I can be presentable, but not fashionable.
Even metaphorically, I just don’t see myself as a guy who Jesus took from T-shirts to tuxedos. I see myself as just as desperate for God, or some random king, to come and bring me into a banquet as when I was twelve years old in confirmation class.
It’s not that I haven’t changed and grown. God’s grace has worked in me, but the main thing it seems to do is show me how much I need God’s grace, and how many people there are out there who need God’s grace, peace, and mercy as well.
The Bible says many times that it is precisely in weakness, in need, in mourning and spiritual poverty and lack of control, it is precisely HERE that God works, precisely in the places where God seems most absent that God is most present.
So if some god, or some random king, wants to tell me that I, or someone like me, isn’t fit for the banquet because we haven’t properly advanced in our discipleship career track, that we don’t belong at the wedding because we don't wear the grace and love of Jesus Christ fashionably enough, then that random king and I, that god and I, we have a problem.
I can’t believe that God would exclude me or people like me from God’s wedding banquet just because I don’t look like or act like or think like everyone else there.
At this point in the Bible study, I took a breath and wondered if anyone else felt that way.
One of the pastors there said to me, “Look, Tim. You don’t have to worry about this, because it says right here, ‘the man was silent.’ That’s not you.”
He has a point, and not just that I refuse to let go of stuff that troubles me in Bible studies.
Maybe it was the man’s silence, and not his suit, that got him thrown out of the banquet.
Remember, when the king asks the man about his clothes, he starts by calling him “friend.”
Maybe the only thing between this man being a friend of the king, and this man being a dangerous lunatic who needs to be tied up, isn’t what he was wearing, but what he was or wasn’t doing or saying.
What if the man had said that the clothes didn’t fit him? What if he said that no one told him there was a dress code when they dropped an invitation in his lap where he sat begging for crumbs? What if the man answered the king’s question (“How did you get in here?”) with “Well, you invited me.”? What if the man said that he was afraid that if he put on the wedding uniform (sorry, wedding CLOTHES), that he’d not really be HIM anymore, that he’d be nothing other than some nattily dressed nobody, another anonymous face in a spiffy crowd? What if he asked the king if he would prefer if he just shot the wine steward in the face like the king’s other friends did?
And what if someone else had come to the man’s defense? There were people all around him. What if someone else took the man’s part, told the king to stop bullying him? What if someone else risked their own comfort and convenience and security to step outside themselves and stand next to this man, stand WITH this man, even if they themselves didn’t really have any problem with the wedding attire?
How would the parable be different if there was less silence?
The 1001 conference had, like many church conferences, time for workshops and time for small group discussions. While I was waiting for my small group to gather, I saw that one of our number (let’s call her Michelle because I forgot her real name) was so angry she was talking to herself.
“Don’t you just DISMISS someone like… Tell YOU a thing or two… Think you’re so important you can just…”
Before we got to whatever it was we were SUPPOSED to be discussing, we asked Michelle what was wrong. She said she was furious about something that happened in the stewardship workshop.
Now, I’d been to a different session of the stewardship workshop the day before, and I thought it was kind of helpful.
The thing was, at Michelle’s session, a black woman had an objection, but was too shy to voice it. The woman sitting next to her spoke for her. The problem was that the woman could not see herself, a black woman, walking up to a probably white rich man on a golf course and saying, “Please, suh, won’t you hep my poor black community?” like some Gone with the Wind field hand asking a favor from Rhett Butler. It wasn’t as much a question of personal humility as it was a question of cultural humility.
The leader (who is white) said, in essence, that he didn’t know about cultural problems like that and moved on to his next point.
At which point, Michelle, who, as she told it, was sitting across the room, stood up and let the leader have it.
“Don’t you just DISMISS her!” she said. “What kind of way is that to treat her? Where do YOU get off just blowing HER off?”
The workshop leader apologized, said he didn’t mean to brush the woman off, but that he didn’t have experience in that situation, that there were others not present who did, and he would be sure to get them in touch.
Still, Michelle thought he was just brushing off the objection with a few more words, which is why she was still seething an hour or so later.
At the small group gathering, we talked and prayed Michelle down from her fury. We let her know that we understood her outrage, but we helped her see that the leader wasn’t out to dismiss or belittle people.
While we were all talking with Michelle, I started to realize something amazing had happened:
- Someone had a problem, but couldn’t ask about it.
- Someone else stood with her and asked the question.
- Then, somebody ELSE (Michelle) stoop up for the other two,
- and then WE (the small group) took time and energy to help Michelle, whom we BARELY knew, deal with her anger.
I do not see that kind of thing happening often enough: people gathering around those in danger of being excluded or dismissed. More often it seems, people (myself included) just stay seated and silent, like all those well-dressed street people at the king’s wedding banquet.
Now, I realize that it’s a standard practice for many to consider any king in a parable of Jesus as representing God. I don’t think that’s true here, though.
I mean, this king is a pretty horrible person, and doesn’t really act like the God revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. Look at him:
- He has his minions burn down entire cities because someone in there DARED to treat one of HIS servants badly.
- He lowers the velvet rope to his banquet to let street people in, and then raises it up again for the offense of improper haberdashery.
- He goes from “Hello, friend!” to “Goons, get him!” in ten seconds like some bipolar mob boss.
- He’s apparently so disagreeable that not even his best friends could stand to be together with him for a few hours, even stooping to murder to avoid having to THINK about it.
To be honest, when you look at it, the king looks less like God and more like…
… well …
That’s why I’ve included a few extra verses in the reading, before and after the parable. The Pharisees knew that in this set of parables Jesus was talking about them.
The Pharisees were the kings of God’s temple, the ones who decided who were the “insiders” and who were the “outsiders,” who were properly dressed and who weren’t. And while they would invite ordinary people into the temple, they had to act and dress the right way if they were going to stay there.
When Jesus said that this story was what the kingdom of God was like, he wasn’t talking about the way the world ought to be, but the way the world was, the kingdom of God on earth. In today’s world, the church.
These Pharisees who would approach Jesus, who wasn’t wearing the wedding clothes they provided, and challenge him, and when he wouldn’t answer them, tie him up and toss him out like a dangerous maniac.
And, unfortunately, if we are honest, we church folk too often act just like the Pharisees, the king in the story.
We good, pious folk often spend time saying how much we love everybody, just like God does, and then make lists of how “those” people are all screwed up: Those Democrats. Those Republicans. Those young people with their Instagrams and their Snapchats. Those old people with their Matlocks and their Andy Griffiths. You know. Those people.
We talk about acceptance, but what we often mean is acceptance for people who look and think and act more or less like us, who accept the invitations we make or at least wear the wedding clothes we provide.
I think the difference is that we know a little better. We know that Jesus entered the banquet with the street people and not with the king and his entourage. We know that none of us are good enough to sit at the banquet, and none of us should keep others from entering in, or throw people out. If anything, we should go out, leave the banquet, in order to find them.
There are people all over the world, people all over Louisiana, people all over Slidell and Pearl River who feel weird and stupid, excluded and ignored. They often make good church folk very uncomfortable. Maybe they listen to death metal. Maybe they listen to bluegrass. Maybe they listen to bluegrass versions of death metal. Maybe they are geeks or jocks or accountants or gay, queer in the broadest sense of the word.
Many of them don’t come to church or Sunday school, and they ignore our invitations because they suspect that all we’ll do to them is try to turn them into people that look and sound and think like we do. They believe that we will just comb their hair, shine their shoes, and give them nice Christian wedding clothes, and then, if they don’t fit in or refuse to wear the nice clothes we gave them, throw them out, or politely stop talking with them. Jesus may have eaten with sinners and protected prostitutes and gave traitors leadership positions, but that kind of thing is often seen as unreasonable and irresponsible today.
I know. We’re not that kind of church. We don’t want to be that kind of church. Not Northminster. Not the Presbytery of South Louisiana. Not the PC(USA). But the people outside aren’t going to believe us if we don’t toss aside our comfort and preferences and start doing something different.
- To share Christ’s love with these “outsiders”, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
- To show them that they are valued by God and us beyond how useful they may be, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
- To let them know that even if they aren’t wearing good Christian wedding clothes, they are still people that Jesus died for, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
I don’t know what that “something different” is. It’s certainly going to take different forms for different people, and sometimes this “something different” might not be led by a professional pastor, or even an ordained elder.
1001 is about trying something different. Maybe just a little different (like a traditional church that reaches a small racial or ethnic group). Maybe a lot different, like standing on a sidewalk, handing out chicken wings and taking the hands of prostitutes and drug addicts and praying with and for them.
There have always been Christians who have wanted to reach out to those misfits, but, too often, their ideas and concerns have been sidelined because they don’t come with a good business plan or a seat or a voice at the leadership table.
I want to talk to people who want to reach out to misfit weirdos who don’t know how to dress, but who are probably going to lead us all into deeper communion with Christ. I hope I’m talking to some of them now.
If there is a community of people you love and want to show them that grace, peace, and mercy are theirs from the triune God, let’s talk. There’s a whole community of folks at 1001 New Worshipping Communities, and even in this presbytery, who would LOVE to help you reach those people you care about. There’s some money available, but more than that, there are PEOPLE available. And you can start with me.
So to recap the lessons in this parable:
- Don’t kidnap and murder postal employees.
- If you feel left out or left behind, or if you see someone who feels left out or left behind, say something. Say something to us or say something to them, or say something to us AND them. Even if there’s nothing we can do right now, even if there’s no budget or leadership team, let us know so that we can start praying and working.
- Join with us and do something different.
We’re coming to the end of a church season that started on January 6 and finishes up Tuesday night. Church folk call it “Epiphany.” Yats like me call it “Carnival.”
An epiphany is a sudden insight that changes the way one thinks about something. Carnival is a time when all kinds of people gather to celebrate.
Let’s change the way all kinds of people think about Jesus and the church, and at the same time, let’s change the way we think about what it takes to gather all kinds of people together to celebrate.