I’ve never done this before, but for today’s sermon, I wrote a fairy tale about the great commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Here it is.
Once upon a time there was a young prince who had everything he could possibly desire and never spared a thought for anyone but himself. As his father, the king, lay dying, the young prince sat by his bedside so he would know the moment that he (the prince) would become king. The dying king was a just and loving sovereign, and he lamented that his indulgence had led his son down the lonely path of selfishness. So the king called upon her grace, the archbishop, who had the honor of crowning the new monarch upon the king’s death.
The king said to her, “Take my crown and remove the three jewels that adorn it. Only when my son shall fill those three settings with ornaments of his own shall you crown him king.”
Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14
Today I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.
I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.
So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.
We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:
“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”
After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.
Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.
The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.
Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.
The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.
And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.
But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.
So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”
During the summer, I am preaching without notes or a text; as such, what follows is the unraveling of my thought processes for a sermon, not the actual words I spoke.
I was riding the T on my way to Mass General when I noticed a young fellow across from me pick up a pair of sunglasses that had fallen out of the pocket of the man sitting next to him. The man was reading a crumpled edition of the free newspaper that seems to germinate in subway stations and hadn’t noticed his glasses fall. The fellow looked at the sunglasses for half a minute and then spent the rest of the minute attempting to get the attention of the man with the free paper. Finally, he poked the man in the knee with the glasses, and the man pocketed them with a grateful smile to the young fellow.
The fellow could have easily put the sunglasses into his own pocket, the complimentary bounty of the inattentive man. Rather, he confirmed my sometimes flagging faith in the human race and handed the glasses back. Of course, there is a clear right and clear wrong in this situation, and to his credit, the fellow chose the right.
Now (and this is for posterity, so be honest) how many of you would have taken the glasses for yourself? How many of you would have seen the (perhaps expensive) shades and decided that the man with the paper didn’t really need them anymore? Finders Keepers, right?
Owing to what were (I am sure) fine upbringings, I hope none of you raised your hands. We spend a goodly amount of time teaching our children the difference between right and wrong. “Emily, I’m glad you’re sharing your jelly beans with your brother. That’s the right thing to do.” “Jimmy, stop hitting your sister. That’s wrong!” Distinguishing between right and wrong is easy. If you have to keep your action a secret – say, for example, you cut the hair off all of your sister’s Barbie dolls – then you’ve probably chosen the wrong thing to do. From an early age, we learn right from wrong, and we hopefully also learn to choose the right, although the actions of recent Wall Street executives disprove the unanimity of this childhood lesson.
While we spend a good deal of time on this lesson, we spend much less time teaching our children the much trickier ability of choosing between right and right. How do we decide when the choice is not between a good and a bad, but between a good and another good?
Let’s look at an example. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. It’s only 35 seconds after all. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law should override the good of you arriving at your destination a few seconds sooner.
Now let’s add a few more variables. At 1:30 in the morning, you are driving down the street and you see the light ahead turn red. Your wife is in the backseat; her contractions are only a few minutes apart. The baby is coming any minute now! You roll to a stop and look both ways. No one is coming. Do you wait for green or do you run the light? Respect for the law tells you to wait, but the biological instinct to protect your wife and unborn child by getting to the hospital as soon as humanly possible tells you to go Go GO. So, what do you do? In this case, the good of respecting the law falls short of the good of getting your wife to a medical professional.
Choosing between right and right is a tricky business because both choices are good. So, how do we followers of Jesus make these choices? This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides some clarity. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and then goes about her tasks. Her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him speak. When Martha asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part.
Does this mean that Martha has chosen the wrong thing? Has she done something bad? Of course she hasn’t. This isn’t a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. Martha has done the same thing that Abraham does in the accompanying reading from Genesis. Abraham bustled around preparing a meal for the three men, who tell him that he and Sarah are finally going to have a child of their own. This bustling isn’t right in the Hebrew scripture and wrong in the Gospel. Martha does the right thing: she provides hospitality for the gathering, which is arguably the highest good in the Hebrew law.
But Jesus says that Mary does a better right thing. She listens to Jesus when she is in his presence. She is not distracted or worried, but attentive to his words. This is the better good, which does not erase Martha’s attempt to do the right thing. Rather, Mary displays the fundamental action, of which Martha’s welcome and hospitality are secondary outcomes.
When I am worried and distracted by many things, how often do I actually stop, take a deep breath, and listen? Not often enough, I’ll tell you. Even when I am engaged in good things, my busyness often drowns out that voice, for which I should be listening. Choosing between right and wrong is easy, but choosing between right and right is difficult. When I have so many good things clamoring for my attention, I first must sit down at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen.