Note: This is a few days late in the posting, but the message itself is timeless.
National Going Out Day
Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14
It’s the same architecture in Matthew and Luke—the banquet, the guests who make excuses, the gathering of the many until the hall is filled.
Luke’s version is the one with which we’re more familiar. Matthew’s is wedding banquet meets world of war craft. Sure, in Luke’s version, the banquet giver is justifiably insulted by the brazen excuses of the invited, but he doesn’t go all Terminator on them.
By the end of Matthew’s parable there are a lot of bodies on the floor, slaves murdered—someone didn’t get the don’t-shoot-the-messenger memo—villages razed, and finally, for good measure, one guest thrown into the outer darkness: Talk about a wardrobe malfunction!
In Luke it’s all about the eating. There are nineteen meals in Luke, 13 unique to Luke’s gospel alone. Luke is the Paula Deen of Gospel writers. So in Luke’s telling, the central compelling image in the parable is of that banquet hall overflowing with guests:
“The servant came back and reported this [the excuses of the invited] to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ ‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Here is the great fact of God’s hospitality, a sumptuous banquet for all the ill-fortuned, miss-begotten, down-trodden, of-no-account, disreputable, bedraggled, stinking, rowdy, joyous mass of teeming humanity.
Were we to play the game of Match the Reformer to the parable, we would give Luke’s great banquet parable to Luther, with all of his table talk and beer guzzling and four-part singing. The Matthew account is for us Calvinists.
In Matthew’s version of the parable, God’s hospitality is still a central concern, but see what a terrible serious thing it is. By Matthew’s telling, God’s hospitality is as much burden as blessing—Calvin would love that. Hospitality is God’s absolute prerogative and the consequences are dire for anyone who dares spurn God’s invitation. The Old Testament smiting God is back in town!
Within the structure of the Gospel, Matthew places this parable within a series of polemics against the Pharisees that will culminate in that great crescendo of condemnation in the next chapter; the one which begins “Woe to you Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You yourselves do not go in, and when others try to enter you stop them,” and ends with the heartbreakingly plaintive: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Such fierceness is the mark of a new community straining to define itself. We hear the rancor of that family feud as Jewish, and now some gentile Christians claim their identity as something independent from, and even hostile to older schools of ardent religious conviction like that of the Pharisees.
So it is that the wedding feast is for the new community—a thing which looks altogether different than those first converts had imagined. For this reason, Matthew adds some detail about the role of the messenger. Here again, within the larger structure of the Gospel, we’re on our way to that final resounding imperative, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you.”
Just a few chapters back, in sending out his disciples Jesus has given them the helpful bit of advice, “If you enter a town and they do not receive you, leave that town and shake the dust from off your sandals.” But now, Jesus makes clear that they may be lucky to have the privilege of leaving at all. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”
The final and perhaps most striking difference between the Matthean and Lukan telling of the banquet parable is the interesting bit Matthew throws in at the end about the inappropriately attired wedding guest. Here again, whereas Luke’s straightforward telling emphasizes the unbounded hospitality of the divine, Matthew begins and ends the story with a warning to those who would disdain such generosity.
And now comes the painful part of today’s sermon, by which I ask you to recall 10th grade English class, and that day when you were forced to learn all those technical figures of speech designed to suck all the joy and spontaneity out of otherwise lovely free range poetry. Back there in the hazy corner of your brain do you happen to remember the term synecdoche? Alright, it’s a rhetorical question. Synecdoche is the literary device by which a part represents a whole, or a subset stands in for a broader category. In “give us this day our daily bread” bread stands in for food, for example. Well, it’s occurred to me more than once, as a lesbian and a Presbyterian, and someone who’s been advocating for fairness in our ordination standards, that we LGBTQ Presbyterians have introduced a kind of synecdochic error. We’ve let fairness in ordination standards stand in for true welcome. We’ve even let ordination of teaching elders stand in for ordination of all officers, belying the equality of all offices in our polity.
I know I risk sounding ungrateful, and nothing could be further from the truth. But I’m still longing for a church that takes seriously its collective and common pastoral duty of making tangible God’s hospitality even unto the furthest margin. I hope to be ordained—preferably before I retire—but what is my ordination, if still in some Presbyterian church, a young man leaves that Sunday night youth group, the virulent rhetoric of religiously fueled homophobia poisoning his soul, sits down in his bedroom, puts the gun in his mouth, and pulls the trigger? In just a few days, our church will ordain Scott Clark—someone whose call and gifts are so demonstrably evident; but what is the relative importance of that ordination if still, somewhere, some 18- or 19-year-old or altogether terribly young kid and his buddies, jacked up on beer and the Bible, assault one more transgender woman on the streets outside our church doors? That our church may now ordain publicly identified LGBT persons indeed does have both real and symbolic significance, but the real measure of that significance must be in whether the fact of LGBT ordination contributes to ending the violence perpetrated in the name of all of us—LGBTQ and straight alike—who call ourselves Christians.
Two days ago, when Scott Anderson, a beautiful gay man, put on that stole and thus ushered in a new era in the life of the Presbyterian Church, it meant a tremendous amount to all of us who have been working for just such a day. But what matters more than that one act of ordination are the thousand acts of pastoral care that you will offer: to the parents with the son who died of AIDS, to the young woman just coming out, to the same-gender couple who comes to you in all the vulnerability of love and offers you the great honor of officiating at their wedding, to the teenager figuring out that their own internal identity is different than the gender identity they present to the world. Fair ordination is great. Welcome is everything!
For the last two generations our church has enforced policies which rendered LGBT persons as ineligible for ordained office in our church; in so doing we dishonored the hospitality of God—and therein lies our sin and our shame. Throughout our history we have often yielded to the temptation of claiming for ourselves the power to determine who is in and who is not, when that prerogative is God’s alone. Jesus’ most stinging indictments are for just such offenses.
Our years of church fights over Biblical interpretation, theology, modernism, post-modernism, etc. provided all of us, LGBT and straight alike with a grand distraction from the difficult work of being a messenger. Church fights are exhausting and demoralizing, but going out to the margin, that’s terrifying.
Tomorrow is another National Coming Out Day, but for two generations now, LGBT folks have given the church the great gift of our coming out. We have told you our stories, made ourselves vulnerable in your presence, patiently answered insulting questions, waited while the church dithered, defended our understanding of Scripture, borne the prejudice and the misinformation, had our hearts broken, and hung in there.
Maybe instead what’s needed now is a National Going Out Day. Going out to those queer kids who know only that the church is at best hypocritical, and often hateful; then to all those who the church has marginalized; and then on to the very margins of the margin. Because the banquet is ready! It’s been ready all along, and all along, our only job has been to deliver the invitation!
- Lisa Larges
San Anselmo, California