Albums and Playlists

Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 || Proper 23A || Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

People don’t listen to albums anymore. In the age of digital music and playlists and Pandora and Spotify, you can tailor your listening experience exactly the way you want to. Don’t like a particular song? Don’t download it, or at least uncheck it from the list being exported to your device. Now the observation that people don’t listen to albums anymore is not new; the music industry has been in flux since I was a teenager when the invention of the mp3 changed all the rules.

But such an observation struck me recently when I went to YouTube and watched the new tour of one of my favorite bands. U2’s seminal album The Joshua Tree is thirty years old this year, and at their concert, they played the entire album straight through from “Where the Streets Have No Name” all the way to “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Because I had consumed many of the tracks via U2’s “Best Of” albums, I had never heard The Joshua Tree as a unit. And I was stunned. I had never noticed the intense longing the album as a whole conveys. Taken singly, the songs are fine – some are even extraordinary – but as a whole, The Joshua Tree is an astounding, beautiful, and heartbreaking work of art.

And I lament the fact that the way we listen to music now means most people will never experience such a work of art the way it was meant to be encountered. We pinch a song from here and nab a song from there and skip over ones we don’t really like or aren’t in the mood to listen to. And we miss the bigger story that an artist might be trying to convey, like U2s soul-rending longing in the face of troubles in Ireland, South America, and apartheid South Africa.

The recent fragmenting of musical experience is a direct parallel to another fragmenting that has been going on for hundreds of years, the fragmenting of biblical experience. Before verse numbers were added to the Bible in the 1500s, pulling a few words from here and stitching them to a few words from there was much more difficult. While early commentators certainly went line by line, they did not have these artificial demarcations to influence their reading.

But we modern Bible readers have the ability to zero in on exactly the verses we either want or do not want to read. Like our music, we can put together a playlist of our favorite verses and ignore the rest. The trouble with this approach is, of course, it doesn’t lead to a very authentic encounter with the words of Holy Scripture. The pieces of the Bible should be seen as albums like The Joshua Tree, not as Top 40 singles.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is a good test case as to the danger of treating the Bible like we treat our digital music. The passage involves a truly strange parable about what it’s like in God’s country, the kingdom of heaven. But the strange parable has an even stranger ending. The bit with the guest not wearing a wedding robe is the part I am tempted to ignore completely because I don’t understand it; after all, the Gospel can still stand with or without one individual story. But this is where I need to pause and not immediately jump to the next track like I would when listening to music. Perhaps nothing will come from this particular reading, but if I skip it, then nothing will ever come from it.

So I read it again: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

You can see why I want to skip this part, why I’d rather not include it on my biblical playlist. But we don’t have that luxury. These words are part of the Gospel, whether we like them or not. So what do we do? There are several responses.

First, we could excise the uncomfortable words even though they are part of Holy Scripture. Thomas Jefferson did so with every miracle story in the Gospel. When he was done his Bible was full of holes, literal holes. The Episcopal Church does something similar by excluding certain verses of the book of Psalms from our readings. Yes, the verses are hard, horrific sometimes, but they’re still part of the story, and to have an authentic encounter with Holy Scripture we must be prepared to read all of it, even the tough parts.*

So if we can’t excise strange or uncomfortable words, we could try explaining them away saying something like, “Maybe the Gospel writer took liberties with Jesus’s words to advance his own agenda. After all, the Gospel was written during a time of turmoil within the Jewish/Christian community.” Such an explanation helps for a little while until we realize that the words are still there staring us in the face, no matter how we try to pluck them from Jesus’ lips.

So if we can’t excise them or explain them away, we should just give up altogether, right? Too many passages in the Bible are strange or uncomfortable, so we should just stop reading scripture for good. No, that won’t do either because for every cryptic passage like this, there are a dozen passages like today’s reading from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I wouldn’t dream of missing out on such beautiful truth just because another part of the Bible makes me uncomfortable.

So if we can’t excise or explain away or give up, what can we do? We can get curious. We can look up the historical context and discover that in Jesus’ day it was often the custom that all wedding guests be given a robe upon entry, which means this fellow either sneaked in or else rejected the robe. Hmmm…. Maybe there’s something there.

Our curiosity can bring us to discuss the passage with friends or family or a pastor. Find out what they think. Perhaps all you’ll get is confirmation of your confusion, but such solidarity is still important.

In the end, we might be right back where we started, like I am today. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for in this weird bit of scripture. I’d still much rather skip over it like a song in a playlist. However, the Bible is made of albums, not playlists, and so instead of giving in to my kneejerk desire, I find myself reciting those words from Philippians again. I find myself relaxing into the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, especially my lack of understanding where strange or uncomfortable parts of scripture are concerned. Like me, you may not understand the bit about the man without a wedding robe, but such ignorance does not deny or exclude faith. Faith exists specifically because we don’t understand everything. And the peace of God exists to make sure we can rest in our faith, whatever turmoil comes our way.

* I am aware that this idea could be correlated to the current debate about Confederate monuments; i.e. “They are part of our history, even if a bad part, and therefore they should remain.” However, this is a false correlation, as the vast majority of “Confederate” monuments were not erected in the aftermath of the Civil War to commemorate fallen soldiers, etc., but were erected during the height of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement to intimidate the descendants of slaves by the watchful bronze eyes of their ancestors’ owners. 

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