Monthly Archives: October 2011

10-30-11 BIBLES AND CROSSES AND PRAYERS, OH MY!

BIBLES
AND CROSSES AND PRAYERS, OH MY!

Matthew
23: 1-12

A
man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard,
when suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did
the right thing and stopped, afraid that photo enforced intersection
would cost him a ticket.

The
tailgating woman hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration
as she missed her chance to get through the intersection.

As
she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked
up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer
ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the
police station where she was processed and placed in a holding cell.

After
several hours, she was released. She was escorted back to the booking
desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal
effects.

He
said ‘I’m sorry for this mistake. I pulled up behind your car while
you were blowing your horn, gesturing inappropriately to the man in
front of you, and cursing. I had already noticed your ‘Choose Life’
license plate, your ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, your
‘Follow Me to Sunday-School’ bumper sticker, and your chrome-plated
Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had
stolen the car.”

Jesus’
disdain for hypocrites is well-documented: hypocrites are those who
act one way, but in their hearts act or believe another way. Jews
could be hypocrites, we learned last week; today we are reminded that
Christians can to: and to be a Christian hypocrite is one of the
worst disservices to God a person can do. The issue is not just a
Biblical one; despite the warnings of Jesus, it has remained one of
the most talked about issues for Christians through the ages. In
1564, Christian mystic St. John of the Cross survived excruciating
torture through his love for God and his belief that God loved him.
His writing about his experience is called “The Dark Night of the
Soul,” the linchpin book for my planned doctoral project. In that
work he writes this: “Many a beginner falls at times into great
spiritual avarice. Scarcely anyone is contented with that measure of
the spirit which God gives; they are very disconsolate and querulous
because they do not find the comfort they desire in spiritual
things….They load themselves up with images, rosaries, and
crucifixes, curious and costly; taking up one, and then and then
another, changing them, and then resuming them again….I condemn
here that attachment and clinging of the heart to form, number, and
variety of these things, because in direct opposition to poverty of
spirit, [it] looks only to the substance of devotion….[But] real
devotion must spring out of the heart.” [Fount Paperbacks, 1995, p.
16.] The reformer John Calvin once wrote: “The scribes live very
differently from what they teach; if they have anything which is
apparently good, it is hypocritical and worthless, because they have
no other designs than to please men, and to vaunt themselves …
[and] shield themselves by their pretended holiness.” [CALVIN’S
COMMENTARIES, VOL XVII, P.77.]

Calvin’s
contemporary Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli once wrote: “I venture
to command you to fight against those who prefer to keep the heavy
yoke of the hypocrites rather than to take the sweet yoke of Christ
upon themselves.” [20 CENTURIES OF GREAT PREACHING, VOL II, P.
110.] The popular early 20th century preacher of the Westminster
Congregational Chapel in England, G. Campbell Morgan, once wrote that
“the one type of mind against which God Almighty has set himself
…whether in the old or in the new covenant, and supremely in the
person of Jesus, is the hypocritical mind. We have but to remember
the burning, scorching, blasting words of Jesus to recognize that
they were all spoken against hypocrites, people who act, who play a
part, who disassemble, who try to keep up an appearance which is
false to the inward fact of the personality; people who profess to
believe something that they do not believe.” [20 CENTURIES OF GREAT
PREACHING, VOL VIII, P. 38.] Of all the age groups that are best at
noting hypocrites, teenagers are as good at it as any. The poplar
teenage movie “Saved” includes a hypocritical super Christian
star, Hilary Faye, played by Mandy Moore. In it she judges everyone
who is not Christian including a girl, Tia, who had gotten herself
into trouble. In the end, the tables are turned in a way that showed
the non-Christian Tia being the most Christ-like. And finally, it was
just a few short years ago that Christian singer and songwriter
Steven Curtis Chapman wrote his song called “The Change.” Here
are his lyrics: “Well I got myself a tee-shirt that says what I
believe, I got letters on my bracelet to serve as my ID; I got the
necklace and the key chain, and almost everything a good Christian
needs. I got the little Bible magnets on my refrigerator door, and a
welcome mat to bless you before you walk across my floor; I got a
Jesus bumper sticker, and the outline of a fish stuck on my car, and
even though this stuff’s all well and good, I cannot help but ask
myself: What about the change? What about the difference? What about
the grace? What about forgiveness? What about a life that’s showing
I’m undergoing the change?”

John
the Baptist proclaimed the need for such change: for repentance, and
for living life authentically and differently. Christian baptism
calls for such an authentic new life as well. And still, the examples
of Pharisaic-like persons abound. Some prosperity gospel preachers
adorn themselves, their homes, their automobiles, and their bodies
with gold and opulence. Do people see that as hypocritical? Some
preachers who were making millions of dollars on the air a number of
years ago were caught having very public marital affairs. Such
hypocrisy makes many view clergy with suspicious eyes. The hypocrisy
of others makes it difficult for those who try not to be that. But
perhaps like sin, this is one of the hardest conditions to shake. Are
there not times when we also appear as hypocrites to others? Even
appearances can make people think where there is smoke, there is
fire.

Here’s
how Jesus addressed the problem of hypocrites. In Matthew 21 Jesus
came to Jerusalem for the first time in his ministry on the day we
celebrate as Palm Sunday. That was a major city where Jesus was an
outsider, and even an interloper in the business of scribes. How
bold, how dangerous, how threatening it was for him to say this to
crowds who were used to honoring Scribes and Pharisees, at least
publicly. Jesus said: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’
seat; therefore do what ever they teach you to do and follow it; but
do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” In
Jesus day the Moses’ seat was a stone bench at the front of a
synagogue where the reader for the day would open the scroll and read
from a portion of Scripture. Reading the inspired writings was to be
respected then as today, and the person reading them could not change
the message by living rigid or unethical lives. But when such
religious leaders were apart from reading the word, their actions
were confusing at best or undermining at worst. Their actions,
unfortunately, spoke louder than their words. As one commentator put
it, “Jesus’ hostile caricature of the ‘scribes and Pharisees’
is meant to help crowds (and the disciples) see clearly the
differences between leadership that bears witness to God’s power,
and leadership that seeks power for its own end.” [PREACHING THE
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, Stanley Saunders, 2010, p. 237.] Going on, in
verse 4 Jesus says: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and
lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are
unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” In other words, they
heaped guilt and law on others, but they were unwilling to show
justice by helping or counseling those who had fallen short due to
economic or moral shortcomings. Jesus was always listening to the
poor and the handicapped, people who society, and even the Jewish
customs of the day, scorned. People would point to those people and
say: “They or their parents must have done some great sin to make
that person so poor, or so blind, or so crippled;” and then they
would do nothing. There was no Social Security, or disability check,
or compassion, even though the Covenant Code was filled with
compassionate laws! The Scribes and Pharisees failed to live as their
own Law told them to live. And that was their biggest sin. Jesus had
come to save sinners, but people who are blind to their own sin never
turn to him. Like in our day, people of faith often got caught up in
the trappings of merchandise, even so called sacred items, to
convince others, and perhaps themselves, that they were faithful
people of God. Long phylacteries and fringes were the tassels that
hung off of their robes as symbols of prayerful piety. And when they
went to special engagements, they always expected to be seated at the
head table.

Certainly
there are still people in our world today, politicians, movie and
music stars, and divas who want the first class treatment without
being invited to partake of it. Perhaps you know some people like
that. But Christians? Do people who profess Christianity do that? To
the detriment of God’s Kingdom: yes. I know some; and I’m sure in
my lifetime I’ll see others. There are people even in our community
who ask for power and influence to rest in themselves instead of in
God. That’s the most damaging state of peripheral Christianity in
our world today, or what some people call “Presentational
Christians” or “Carnal Christians.” They may have a big Bible,
a beautiful cross around their neck, and they may offer prayers that
turn into public performances. Certainly not everyone with a Bible, a
cross, or a prayer is that way, of course. But if you recognize
ostentatious or hypocritical tendencies in yourself: clean them up!
You are damaging the Christ and the Kingdom you pretend to honor. If
there are those in your family or circle of friends who are like
that, perhaps you’ll choose not to be around them. Or you might
find opportunity to say something about it to them, but such
confrontation can get dicey. Still, we are supposed to be the ones to
change the world, not have the world change us! Therefore you’ll
offer your best witness if you live the authentic life of humility,
and have your actions match your words. Practice what Jesus preached!
Jesus didn’t have time for the other kind of counterproductive
living: he still has a world to transform and souls to save, and that
happens best when real Christians show real care toward others and
live the Law with love. Witness to others with your life and your
lips; then you will be following your Savior not down the low road of
hypocrisy, but on the upward way of eternal life.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner October 30, 2011

10-23-11 WHAT JESUS LEARNED FROM JUDAISM

WHAT
JESUS LEARNED FROM JUDAISM

Matthew
22: 34-40

Life
in a Jewish household in the first century would have instilled our
Lord Jesus with many qualities, beliefs, and experiences. Given over
to Joseph to raise as his own son, Mary and Joseph were still part of
a Nazareth community. The story might have been told to him about his
birth; sons were also taught by their fathers about their work. In
Jesus’ case, his father was a “teckton” which means someone who
works with stone or wood. He likely would have learned that trade. In
so doing, the job sights might have taken him to the nearby Roman
city of Sepphoris. He would have gotten to know the other tradesmen,
and learned the ways of the Romans. He would have learned about
hypocrisy from the productions put on in Roman theatres by the
“hypocrites,” which means “actors” those who put on an actual
or an emotional mask to become someone else. If Jesus’ Heavenly
Father had picked Joseph to be his human father, then Joseph was also
a man of faith. Jesus would have heard the stories, told yearly,
about the demanding and ruthless Pharaoh who worked them hard, and
how God sent plagues to Pharaoh to persuade him of God’s power,
God’s persistence, and God’s care for those who honor him. Jesus
would have known about, and likely participated in, Day of Atonement
rituals; he would have know about the autumn Festival of Booths, and
the spring Feast of Weeks, all established well before his ministry.
Ideas like sacrifice, leaving food for the poor, and honoring God by
not saying his name aloud would all have been learned by Jesus. The
Galilee area would have had rabbis and Pharisees, but it would have
been on his one or more of his visits to Jerusalem that he would have
met Sadducees- the ones who ran the Temple in Jerusalem. Any human
prejudice again Romans, who taxed heavily, or against the Temple
moneychangers who made large profits off the transactions of
traveling Jewish pilgrims, would have been learned as he grew up.
Jesus was a Jew, a faithful Jew, yet none who knew him could accept
that he was the fulfillment of prophecy. How could one who grew up
with them be “Messiah?” And how could they trust John the
Baptist, who said Jesus was the one sent from God, since John was his
cousin? Jesus stepped into ministry with a region full of doubters
and skeptics. Outside of his region he was welcomed more than in his
own region, but isn’t that often the case today? Some say an
“expert” in a field is someone with a briefcase from at least 50
miles out of town! Jesus’ own people were his toughest.

While
parts of Jewish Law were written down, the most famous of the
writings were on tablets of stone: a contract of sorts between God
and humanity that became known as the Ten Commandments, the
Decalogue, or “the Law.” With a sweep of history we find that the
wise words written on those tablets were written into the wisdom of
other faiths and other areas besides Mt. Sinai and Israel. But most
of the first five books of the Bible, if they were ever written down,
have disappeared over time. We have some of them now, from in 1948,
known as the Dead Sea Scrolls that are quite useful. Finding any holy
books make a big splash. It was when the book of the Law of the Lord
was found at the base of the first Temple that King Josiah of Israel
instituted a revival of sorts, sending out a decree that loose
living, unanchored immorality, and the influences of false gods would
then be put away, and a love for and allegiance toward Yahweh (The
Lord) would be re-established. 2 Chronicles 24 records that King
Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord;” among the
things he did was smash foreign idols and tear down the altars
erected to other gods. Then Josiah began renovating God’s Temple
properly. Then came that fateful day when a priest named Hilkiah
found a book “of the Law of the Lord given through Moses.” Many
scholars today believe that book was the book of Deuteronomy; and
when Hilkiah found that book of the laws of God, guidelines otherwise
entrusted to memory and oral tradition, he corrected the community of
believers and got them back on track to God.

So
it is clear why the Ten Commandments over the years have become
virtually sacrosanct. In the first century, Jesus enters the scene.
Up he grows in the sight of Jewish parents and a loving Heavenly
Parent. Nevertheless, he is exposed to all of the human desires and
prejudices that first century Galilee had. He was astute
intellectually and God gifted him with a shrewdness and brilliance
beyond even the most gifted chess player, software writer, or
inventors of our day. Jesus was beyond measure with his mind, yet
human in his body. Like any of you who would like to be ready when
someone challenges your knowledge or beliefs, Jesus was always being
tested. The day we encountered in Matthew 22 was no different.
Surrounded by a crowd that included workers, rabbis, beggars, and
religious leaders like Pharisees (who he was used to seeing) and
Sadducees (who he only saw on visits to the Jerusalem Temple.)
Sometimes Pharisees and Sadducees were even at odds with one another,
but in this instance, the Bible says in Matthew 22:34, they came
together, as happened in Psalm 2:2, when earthly rulers “gathered
together against the Lord and his anointed one.” On this day,
Pharisees wanted to test Jesus’ orthodoxy. “Does he have right
beliefs?” they wondered. Such questioning happens even today,
across coffee tables, courtrooms, and at presbytery meetings. I’ve
seen it and perhaps you have too. Since every Pharisee believed all
the Ten Commandments were of equal importance, the answer to “Which
of them is the greatest” would have rendered the orthodox answer
“No one commandment is above another; not one can be ignored or
given more weight than the others.” But could it be that Jesus
could tell how easily they were focusing on the trees instead of the
forest, as we all do at different times? Do you know people who say
they religiously stick to the letter of the law but you just don’t
want to be around them? Some I’ve known seem to treat themselves as
“better than others,” act “holier than thou,” and some are
just plain unlikable. Here were people who were supposed to be the
highest and best examples of Judaism, and their self-serving and
loveless attitude was condemning them. Jesus didn’t invent the idea
of loving God or neighbor either. He heard it growing up, and God’s
love for us and our love for God and neighbor permeates the
appropriate lifestyle of a Jew. Good Christians are not the only ones
who are taught to show love, and not the only ones that sometimes
throw love out the window by getting obsessed with right belief.

Which
is the great commandment in the law?” To paraphrase, the question:
“Here are the Ten Commandments; tell us which one is the greatest!”
And what did Jesus do? He could have gone into what Joseph taught
him; what Mary taught him; what his boyhood rabbis taught him; or
what his Heavenly Father taught him. Instead he went back to the
words that mattered as much or more to Jews than perhaps any others.
He went back to the “Shema” the words that said “Hear ye!
Listen up!” Jesus, and virtually every Jew, and now many
Christians, have it etched into their memory banks. The opening
portion is from Deuteronomy 6. “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is
one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words
which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall
teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when
you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie
down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your
hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall
write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” When
some of us will visit Israel next month, we will see faithful
orthodox Jews with those words written on their hand, between their
eyes, and on their doorposts. The Orthodox Jews take these words
literally and carry them out visibly. Jesus, not a literalist, knew
the words of God taught to him since he was young; with just a twist
of language, he answered the questioner this way: “You shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind.” He could have stopped there. But instead he
added words, perhaps remembered from his Sabbath School lessons. He
went into Leviticus, where casual readers of the Old or First
Testament often fear to tread, and there he pulled out this gem from
chapter 19, verse 18: and the second is like it: “You shall love
your neighbor as yourself.” It helps us to remember Jesus’ own
testimonies in his short ministry: he came to interpret the Law and
to fulfill it, not to change it.

How
good it is to know your Bible! Some quote it inaccurately and some
just own one. But to know God best starts by knowing his Word
written, which is Scripture, and his Word living, who is Jesus!
Perhaps our best combination for living is to know the fences for
good living found in Scripture and to seek to live with the heart of
Jesus himself. With the timeless words that Jesus taught along with
his loving actions, we can change the world.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner October 23, 2011

10-16-11 SHADES OF GRAY: GREAT EXPECTATIONS

SHADES OF
GRAY: GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Matthew 24:
42-51

The
idea of watching for the return of Christ, similar to the Old
Testament term, “the day of the Lord,” gets more press and
attention with fringe religious groups than it does in many churches
on regular Sunday mornings. Why is that? The second coming of Christ
is referred to more than 350 times in the New Testament. By contrast,
baptism, the subject of sermons almost yearly, is mentioned just 13
times in the writings of Paul, but the return of the Lord is
mentioned 50 times. And each month as we partake of Holy Communion, I
repeat words like this: “And each time we eat this bread and drink
this cup, we do show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
It is what we believe, but is it that for which we long? Perhaps
there is fear that we will not be judged worthy; or perhaps we failed
to listen well enough to what scales God uses in judging us. Perhaps
it is that we are actually quite afraid of death and have failed to
prepare for it and loathe thinking about it. But a day will come,
when you are ready or when you are not, when you will have to think
about death. Just this week I sat down with a person to plan
ingredients for her memorial service. Good for her. I remember a man
of faith who planned ahead before his death; he met with an attorney,
and with me, and as he lived the rest of his life he had peace in his
heart where his finances would go, he knew where his soul would go
after death, and he chose leave some of his assets to his church. If
the streets of Heaven are paved with gold, Heaven didn’t need his
money, Jesus just welcomed another disciple. The man gave generously
while he was alive; and he has kept giving, through his planned gift,
while he is in heaven. Faithful people plan for the day of the Lord.
And we know that that day- for people of faith, for baptized
followers of Christ, for those who humbly honor God- that day will be
wonderful.

Billy
Sunday, the great revivalist preacher I mentioned a few weeks ago,
was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Referring to the day we meet
Christ face to face, he once said this: “The meeting is to be the
greatest meeting the Bible tells anything about. There have been some
wonderful meetings, but never has there been one to compare to this.
It was a wonderful meeting the children of Israel had on the shore of
the Red Sea, after Pharaoh’s pursuing host had been destroyed in
the angry waters, and Miriam the prophetess, with her timbrel, led
the people in singing, ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed
gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’
And it was another great meeting they had at the foot of Mount Sinai,
when the law of God was given to them amid thunders and lightnings
and fire and smoke….It was a wonderful meeting when Jesus preached
the Sermon on the Mount; and another when he fed the multitude with
five loaves and two fish. And that was a great meeting on the day of
Pentecost, when the Spirit came rushing like a mighty wind….But no
meeting has ever been held anywhere or any time that could begin to
compare in importance with the greatest of all meetings that is to be
held in the air, when our Lord comes ….That meeting is the one for
which all others have been preparing the way. It will be the crowning
meeting of all history.” [BILLY SUNDAY “The Second Coming of
Christ.”]

The
crowd in Billy Sunday’s time, as in our time, also let complacency
set in about Christ’s return and about their own death. If we go
back hundreds of years, we find complacency even in the time of John
Calvin. In one of his sermons, he affirmed “Our Lord Jesus Christ
must appear from heaven. It is one of the principle articles of our
faith. His coming must not be useless. Then, we would look for it,
waiting for our redemption and salvation. We need not doubt it, for
that would violate all that our Lord Jesus Christ did and suffered.”
[John Calvin, “On the Final Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”]
And, astoundingly, we find the chord of “watching and waiting”
sound even in the time of Christ. “Watch therefore” Jesus said in
our text today. And in Luke chapter 12 he says this: “Let your
loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like those who are
waiting on their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that
they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are
those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I
say to you, he will gird himself and have
them
sit at table, and he will come and serve
them.” Those are the
words of our Lord himself; he too was telling sensory stories, making
analogies, and sharing parables to try to teach messages that filled
with insights. And yet there were those in his time, in Calvin’s
time, in Billy Sunday’s time, and in our time who worry not about
the day when they meet Christ. Not only do they not worry, some even
repress it like they repress talk about death. Yet why should it be
that way? In choir practice this week we had a bit of a discussion
about the spelling of a word in the anthem. Some versions of “My
Lord, what a Mourning” spell it with a “u” in it:
m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. Would that imply mourning, or sadness, for those who
had died and who had turned away an invitation to heaven? Would it
describe the saddened mourners who would surely wail over the death
of loved ones who died without a sure destination? Or would there,
instead, be a sense of expectation, of awe, of a new day when the one
who put the stars in the sky will make them fall into the abyss,
because starlight will no longer needed; the Lord God will the light
of the redeemed according to Revelation 22:5. M-o-r-n-i-n-g implies a
“glorious” morning, a new day, and a new life. So how did you
receive the words of the anthem today? Was its message frightful, or
was it hopeful? Perhaps that answer says much about your sureness of
your life in Christ.

I
wish that people would take Matthew 24, verse 42, and put it in their
wallet next to their money or their credit card so the next time they
plan to buy a book from a man who says he knows when Christ will
return they will just save their money and read the passage. Here it
is: “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is
coming.” Some teachers in their classes clearly outline the day
that they will administer tests, midterms, and final exams. Other
teachers prefer to give quizzes that they call “pop quizzes.” I
used to really dislike pop quizzes. How are you supposed to be ready
when you don’t know
when
to be ready? Although some teachers may do it to try to trick or
irritate their class, the best teachers do it as a teaching tool, to
encourage students to learn as they go. God does not want us cramming
for life’s final exam or “pulling an all-nighter” as we called
it in college, to be ready for judgment day. Therefore God doesn’t
reveal when our last day will be, nor does God reveal when Christ
will come again. Not even Jesus himself knows, according to Jesus, a
few verses ahead of our text. Matthew 24: 36 reads: “But of that
day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the
Son, but only the Father knows.” Why would God leave us in that
mystery? Instead of studying for the test, what would it be like to
live
every day as if
it were your last? What if,
today,
were your last day on earth? What would you say to people before you
leave here today? How might your prayers sound different in your
conversations with God; or would you be dusting off a prayer life
that has gotten as perfunctory as grace at meals? Who would you call
when you got home? Would you try to ease your troubled soul by
calling or seeing one with whom you recently had a fight; or might
you try to forgive the one you haven’t yet been able to forgive?
Jesus taught us to pray these words: “Forgive us our debts, as we
forgive our debtors.” Some say it “forgive us our trespasses, as
we forgive those who trespass against us.” If this was your last
day on earth, and you
knew
that your prayer asks God to forgive you to the same degree that you
have forgiven others, would you try to forgive that person today? Or
would you carrying a grudge? I am sure that no one carries grudges
into Heaven! But the issue is not just forgiveness; it is
procrastination. Jesus hasn’t returned in our lifetime so we decide
we’ll put off tomorrow what could be done today. Jesus’ knew
human nature, so he addresses in our text what happens “when the
master is delayed.” He knows all our human excuses; he knows our
temptations; but even
he
doesn’t know the days of our lives. Who he knows is his Father, and
those who get to know Jesus, know God.

So,
suppose I join all those wealthy religious authors who put out their
books, claiming that they have been given a sign, a word from God, of
when Christ is coming again! I have gotten the word from God! Christ
will return soon! You have a little time! Go and live all your days
as if you had just received such a notice from God.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner
October 16, 2011

10-09-11 SHADES OF GRAY: ETIQUETTE IS EVERYTHING

SHADES OF
GRAY: ETIQUETTE IS EVERYTHING

Matthew 22:
1-14

You’re
not wearing
that out
in public!” is a declaration a wife might make to her husband or a
mother might make to her child. What we wear on the outside is
exceedingly important to a few, but to others it doesn’t seem to
matter at all! Do you see someone people dressed outside and you
wonder if they rolled out of bed in those clothes? Pajama bottoms and
tee shirts are the clothes some people don every day! And some just
shrug and say, “So what; they’re comfortable!” In Florida, to
the chagrin of many, people can go out for a nice meal and see dress
shirts and tee-shirts on men in the same restaurant. In the cruise
travel magazine I enjoy, hardly a month goes by without people
complaining about dress codes not being enforced on cruises. Clothing
and attire matter to many people. As I joined a special group of
twelve on a behind the scenes tour of a cruise ship recently, they
sent one man back to put long pants on instead of shorts. The
acceptance letter specifically said all participants needed long
pants for their own protection around machinery. “I told him to put
on long pants!” his wife told us as he ran back to his cabin to
change. “He said he didn’t think it would matter!” It did.
There is a time and place for different levels of dress: funerals,
beach days, banquets, and theme parks all call for different
clothing. But people in Florida in particular like their comfort.
This is promoted a recreation state! Several church men told me they
would never wear a tie again now that they are retired! And they are
wonderful men! Does it really matter how people dress? Our neighbors
at the Drive-in Christian Church get many people in their church
services who go because they feel welcome attending in their pajamas,
in swim wear, and even with their dogs or cats. People love that! And
today, this parable helps us to consider whether our actual clothing
or our
spiritual clothing
really matter to God.

Jesus
is as relevant for us today as he was in the first century once we
acquaint ourselves with the leaders, the mores, the customs, and the
expectations of his time. The untrained eye hears this passage, and
many reach some unfortunate conclusions. This is a parable, but some
read it like an allegory. Parables are subversive in-your-face
stories used by Jesus to hold a mirror up to those in power.
Allegories are stories written with each part standing for something
or someone else. In this story, for example, people for years have
said that the king represents God. But then we are faced with a
conundrum: is this really the way God treats those at a Heavenly
banquet table? Some have tried to make this parable be a story about
God, suggesting that the king is God and the first guests that did
not accept the invitation represent the Jews; that the ones brought
in from the highways and byways are the Christians; and the one
kicked out—sarcastically called “friend”—is one who
masquerades as a Christian but isn’t one. But for today, let’s
hear the story as the parable Matthew said it was. The ones who
filled the table were both bad and good, invited because the king
commanded that the banquet not proceed without a full host of guests.
The earlier ones broke royal etiquette. When a king invited them, it
should have been taken as a royal edict to be there. What hurt and
anger it caused when a majority of his invited guests didn’t come
to his banquet. In our day, so many people don’t
reply
at all
that hosts wonder if guests are coming
or not! As Mary Ann and I hosted two rehearsal dinners, and one
wedding reception over a three year period, we both found ourselves
puzzling over invitations when people did not respond, or did so at
the last minute. And when a reception hall makes you pay for a
prearranged number of guests, the waste of food not served and the
charge of $25 – $50 a plate or more makes emotional costs almost as
high as the financial ones. It is painful when there are no-shows to
special events. And for a king, it is a social disgrace that can
bring on responses of decree. “My guests won’t come because of
those excuses? Then invite anyone from the streets to come! My
banquet must be filled!” Is that what Jesus wants to say about God?
Does God murder because of a refused invitation, breaking one of the
commands sacred to both Jews and Christians? Or is that just a
description of a human king, perhaps one who is losing his influence
on his constituents, one who is desperately trying to hold onto
power? And who is the one he casts out? Would God really cast out
someone with the wrong clothes? And if so, what kind of clothes would
they be? Today we will think about new ways to hear a story that has
been told before.

What
if we think about this story as reflecting
human
actions, the actions of a human king, perhaps a troubled one, more
than the actions of God? Remember that Jesus tells this parable as
scrutinizing Pharisees (like elders of today) and Scribes (clergy of
today) were trying to trap him. Jesus certainly noted that they wore
the right clothing for their office, but they came without the
spiritual clothing
that is required for the people of God: the clothing of repentance,
joy, humility, and forgiveness. But instead of putting God in the
king role, what if we put a Middle-Eastern monarch in the story; say,
one who was losing control of his kingdom and the respect of his
people; someone like Herod? Even in our day, we have seen nations
lose the fear of their dictators, or in our country with the recent
demonstrations, we have seen people who are fed up with our leaders.
Today let us consider that this is a story about the nature of
people, rather than a
story about the nature of God. A king, like a president, was supposed
to be afforded the respect of the office, even if he did things that
did not please his people. As this human king invites people to a
special event—the wedding of his son—he
expects
them to come. They don’t. The parable says
“they made light of it.” Such selfishness or lack of a sense of
duty—feigned or not—caused the king to become outraged. A king in
those days—a king like Herod for example—had the power to make
his constituents pay for their lack of response; and pay they did as
the king sent troops to burn the murderers- the target of this king’s
rageful thoughts—so his troops burned the city (certainly the part
outside of the king’s
palace walls!) Then as those who were left in the ashes found
themselves living in newly created destitution, they knew the king
meant business, and anyone who was within earshot of the king’s
men—even if they never received a printed or personal
invitation—attended eagerly. This time they all went because their
land had been turned to ash: they would get food at the banquet, of
which they now had little, they might receive the king’s favor,
which they had lost, and they might see a chance for advancement. But
a kind is still a king, even if he is a wicked king. In spite of the
burning and maiming he created, he still expects people to come when
summoned, and to come appropriately attired! It is a wedding banquet,
for goodness’ sake! Most who came that day put on their dutiful
sense of respect, as they recalled the Emily Post or Miss Manner’s
etiquette they learned from a grandparent. They passed the king’s
inspection. To do so honored the king which pleased him. But one poor
soul, perhaps devastated by the burnings, forgot that a king was
still a king. Like trying to take a behind the scene ship tour in
shorts, or like trying to come to a wedding in a tee-shirt, he was
not welcome. He had not come with appropriate dignity or deference to
his already rattled king. He was thrown out. And in Matthew’s
gospel the action meant
he was being thrown
into the city that the king himself just devastated
,
rather than remembering his place, and his etiquette, and his
relationship with his king at his banquet. But through the ages
people have made this parable say that God cast someone out into the
darkness of Hell. If we read this parable that way, we have a
vengeful God whose hurt feelings cause him to react in humanly
vengeful ways—the very cycle of retribution that Jesus came to try
to break! Jesus’ purpose for the story is to address Scribes and
Pharisees; they dressed the part, but inside they were fraudulent.
This parable has a different focus if we don’t call this king God.

Jesus
himself, in his Sermon on the Mount, told his followers not to worry
about their clothing—what they should wear. Jesus said in Matthew
6, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all
these things will be added unto you as well
.”
If we remember that God is God, and if we remember to seek to live
God’s way rather than our own, we will wear the right clothing; we
will be clothed in God’s Spirit, the fruits of which, according to
the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5, are love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If those are Godly qualities, how can the king in the parable
represent God? Jesus had many instances in the gospels when he saw
people who were dressed like leaders in a synagogue or the Temple
look like they would
embody Godly qualities, but on examination, they were not dressed in
the Spirit at all; they were dressed in the
flesh.
Later the first letter of Peter actually addresses elders and how
they should act (or be Spiritually dressed.) It reads: “I exhort
the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge,
exercising oversight not for sordid gain, but eagerly. …And all of
you must clothe yourselves with humility in dealing with one another,
for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

Jesus
is giving a new guide by which we judge and are judged: how are we
making ourselves to be more like God, not like the angry King? How
are we showing love unconditionally; how are we doing with our
patience? And how are we doing at being faithful to God, not just to
human beings or causes? It is being clothed with these that will
totally change the way we look at God. Instead of trying to find our
place in the empire of a wrathful and vindictive God, we can get
written into a different story with a loving, welcoming God. And when
this God says: “Come to my banquet!” we will drop what we are
doing and go.

Let
us pray:

As
we think about our qualities that Jesus might call Spiritual
clothing, O God, we can now consider what bad habits of ours we can
cast out; what harsh reactions we can change; and what hateful spite
does to wring the waters of baptism out of our clothes. We can now
consider also changing any attitude that seethes with disrespect and
put on humbleness instead. We pray for the strength to do that now,
following Jesus as our Savior and example. Amen.

October
9, 2011