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Convocation Worship
Yale Divinity School, Morning Worship
October 14, 2008

The Rev. Jeffrey Haggray ’88 M.Div.Haggray
Executive Director/Minister
District of Columbia Baptist Convention
Washington, DC

Matthew 22:1-14

Exclusions, Exceptions, and Acceptability: God’s Unfolding Guest List

How do we as messengers, handle the assignment to invite ‘everyone’ to the most elaborate feast of all time?

In the story a king sent servants as envoys to transmit his invitation to a group of prominent citizens who were familiar faces at royal gatherings.  They declined his invitation for reasons not given at first.

In a fit of persistence or anxiety, or both, a second round of envoys was dispatched to appeal to the invitees to reconsider.  These messengers painted for the invitees a picture of the elaborate arrangements that had been made, announced the menu—oxtails and lamb chops— to emphasize that no expense was spared on the king’s part to make this event special.

The base quality of their regrets offended the king in light of the special nature of his event: Some had to tend the farm, or mind the store.  Others that were approached seized the envoys and assaulted them, in Matthew’s version of the story.

What a bizarre and violent reaction.  Why attack the messengers?  If we were to take the parable at face value we might ask if something had transpired between the king and the invitees that we are not privy to.  Is there anything that a team of homicide investigators in our day would uncover as to a motive for the slayings of the messengers? For those of us in the messaging business it could be a good thing to know what ticks people off, what provokes them to react negatively to our invitation.

Conversely, what message is this king—in Matthews’s version—sending to his would-be-guests?  In a fit of rage he exacted punishment in retaliation for the assaults suffered by his envoys.  Capital punishment, burning the city, was the price paid for assaulting his servants.

A consensus exists among Biblicists that these actions seem too extreme to have been contained in Jesus’ original telling of the parable; and would be a bizarre diversion from all the wedding planning!  One minute he’s ordering up candles, roses, hors d’oeuvres and fine wines, and then next he’s dispatching a swat team to wipe out a whole neighborhood.  Doesn’t this sound out of character with the rest of Jesus’ message? 

Luke didn’t mention this military operation in his telling of the story.  Did Matthew, a known conservative, and a card-carrying member along with Peter of the National Swordsmen Association, interject this caveat in order to spice up the altar call? 

Either way, this display of violence in a parable given by Jesus has left the impression that Christians are not above using force to accomplish our aims when we want to do so.  Some Christians have even used such stories as a warrant to conduct violent crusades against others who do not share our convictions.  Consequently, our credibility to promote peaceful resolution to conflicts gets called into question.  Notwithstanding, the story admits a distinct offense caused by those who coldly rejected the invitation to this celebration for a king’s son.

The absolute unwillingness on the part of those that were invited to attend disqualified them from participation in the banquet.  Stamp the words “EXCLUDED” beside their names.  They needn’t bother to appear.

Subsequently he redirected his messengers to the Main Streets, the Avenues and Boulevards, The Town Square, and the Centers of Activity, of commercial, social and political life; to invite ‘everyone’ they could find to attend the Feast.  The social circle was widened to include “everyone” from the larger community.

The word ‘everyone’ would be profane were it not so “beautiful.”
The granting of this exception to admit everyone is unprecedented. 

This was more special than the opening of the White House gates to the general public for the Egg Roll on Easter Mondays.  Admission is free, but you must arrive early for a ticket.

This was more inclusive than the processional of characters identified in Margaret Walker’s “For My People”  “thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy people filling the cabarets and taverns.”  “Singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees…”

This was more inclusive than opening National’s Stadium for more than 40,000 persons to participate in a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.  Invitees to that event were required to present a “special ticket.”  Those tickets were hard to come by, especially if you were not Roman Catholic.

This invitation to ‘everyone’ was even more inclusive than the admission of thousands of persons to a recent political rally at a Denver stadium, which had an amazing quality to it.  However, it was reported that many of those persons had been volunteers for months, or wanted to work for that campaign in the future, so they were given a ticket.  An intriguing footnote was that just two conventions earlier, the nominee at the center of that Convention was himself unable to obtain credentials to enter the events. 

Eight years later that same individual established a new policy to invite everyone to the Grand Finale.  Perhaps when you have experienced alienation and exclusion; you bring a different idea to deciding who gets admitted.

The servants gathered everyone they found, everyone they could, good and bad. And what a mixed multitude they were. They filled the halls with guests without regard to socio-economic class, cultural, ethnic, religious, or political identity.

As I walked the 1.2 miles from my office at the Baptist Building in mid-town DC through downtown Washington to Lafayette Square (across from the White House) the other day, I took notice of “everyone.”  I wondered, “Who would be included in such a sweeping invitation today?”

I passed by homeless individuals, office workers on their lunch breaks, traffic cops, ex-offenders, panhandlers, children and youth, street corner artisans and musicians, immigrants from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, day-laborers, tourists, drug peddlers, prostitutes, runaway youths, older adults pausing for breath, embassy personnel, straight, lesbian and gay persons, big and small donors, lobbyists, democrats, republicans, and independents, liberals, moderates, progressives, conservatives, and protestors.

“Everyone” consists of a lot of people when in the City.

What does it mean for everyone to be invited into a community of faith?

I interpret the parable of the wedding banquet as an invitation from the Living Christ to our contemporary world.  We, like the envoys that were commissioned to invite the special guests to the feast, are sent as present-day envoys to extend Christ’s welcome to a feast that is already prepared and already underway. 

Our contemporary audience, like the one in the parable is also preoccupied with its own affairs, and frequently is noncommittal to appeals to join with us around a welcome table that was created by God for all people.

As persons that are tasked with transmitting Christ’s invitation to the world, what shapes our telling of this story today?  Moreover, with whom do we hear this parable?

  1. Do we hear this story with the messengers who were sent to announce God’s invitation to the world?  As messengers or heralds we might not worry about our own access to the Feast since we assume we will be ‘working’ the event, washing the hands and feet of the guests as they arrive, seating them, waiting on tables, administering the bread and wine, and making announcements.  If we simply hear the parable with the messengers, we risk becoming mere transmitters of the story, for whom personally the invitation is not very compelling, resulting in a certain monotone on our part after a while.
  1. Do we hear this story as enforcers of the rules, alongside Matthew, Peter and Judas?  In that case, we feel a certain obligation to make sure all the warnings; policy statements and by-laws are declared to the invitees up front.  As enforcers we identify with Matthew more so than with Luke.  We want the hearers to understand the consequences if they reject our invitation; and if they accept.  We want to make certain they know the dress code, and the requirements for full participation. 
  1. Or, do we hear this story as recipients of God’s generous invitation to the entire world?  If as recipients, do we identify with the first round of invitees?  Remember, that first round of invitees was indicted by the parable, and by implication, given Jesus’ priestly audience; some might have belonged to the ecclesiastical establishment.  They were a select clergy group who always attended the Presidential Prayer Breakfasts and the National Days of Prayer.  They would have been on the short lists to offer prayers at inaugurations and weddings at The Executive Mansion and in the halls of the Congress.  These were not unknown, run of the mill parsons, but were well-heeled heads of silk-stocking congregations who were always issued a ticket, and on this day, they behaved differently, declining an invitation from “their” king.

 

God forbid that we should hear this parable with the ecclesiastical elite, who no longer longed for feast times. 

God forbid this should be a metaphor for our religious life within the faith community, of our loss of enthusiasm for worship and communion.  Have we lost the fascination, and the sensation of irrational exuberance for the experience of communion?  Have we lost the sense that God might be up to something new in history, unlike anything we have ever witnessed?  Have we lost our joy?

  1. Or, do we identify with the latter round of invitees for whom an exception was granted?  Remember that group includes everybody, the corpus mixtum: the least and the last, the questionable ones, the unacceptables, the minorities, the day-laborers, the welfare moms, the inner-city kids, the gang members, the blue collar workers, the hotel workers, the parking lot attendants, the security guards, the college students, the seminarians, the city workers, and so on.  Can we even hear this invitation with their ears any longer?

 

They were initially excluded.  But now, thanks be to God, the gates to the feast have swung open wide to “whosoever will.” 

How stirring it feels when we preach this invitation as “recipients” of God unconditional welcome. How compelling it is when we can witness in the spirit of the Afro-American Gospel refrain: “I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody but I couldn’t keep it to myself.”

  • In this rendition of the story the margins have been removed.
  • Formerly dispossessed persons are now welcomed.
  • Those on the fringes are now franchised.
  • The hierarchy has been eliminated.
  • The rules or policies governing who can come in have been re-drafted.

 

What is the manifestation of ‘acceptability’ at a special feast where the mere acceptance of the invitation, unconditional love, and boundless grace are the primary criteria for admission and participation?

Maybe part of our ongoing spiritual work as Messengers of God’s welcome ought to be remembering again and again that we represent all those who at one time were not even invited.  Once we were not a people, but today we are the people of God.  Once, we were not offered admission, but today, we are part of the alumni association. 

Dr. Ruth Simmons is the first African American to be elected President of an Ivy League School.  She began serving her tenure at Brown University in 2001.  Leading up to the 45th Anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington she wrote,
“There’s a lot of fascination with becoming the first, with whoever is first, but the important question to me is whether or not we can reach a place where African Americans can become leaders repeatedly, and without notice.  Our country admits exceptions, but we have not truly changed as a society until we can speak about this as the norm, as if it’s nothing special or unusual”(“Nine Trailblazers,” The Washington Post, August 23, 2008).

The same observation pertains in Christian community.  It is never sufficient for either of us to simply celebrate our acceptance as one of the firsts to be granted an exception, if we do not commit our lives to removing the barriers on behalf of all God’s children.

As Messengers, we should strive to preserve something of the fascination we had as newcomers, when we were the first of our kind, the first from our denomination, the first of our orientation or identity, the first of our social strata or class, which formerly was not acceptable, not recognized for consecration, communion, ordination, or full fellowship within the community; but today we are messengers of Christ’s invitation to “everyone.”

Our preaching of this parable will also be shaped by whether we interpret this invitation as pertaining to a feast that is set to occur at the end of the age, or a feast that is already underway.  Remember the words of invitation contained in the parable,
Everything is ready, come to the feast!”

What is the exact nature of the feast to which we are inviting the world today?

I believe that Marjorie Thompson – Soul Feast – An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life captures the essence of the spiritual, communal, and moral experience that we are inviting the world to take part in today:
(The Need to Gather)
To be Christian is to be joined to the Body of Christ.  The central and visible way in which the church expresses this reality is by gathering in the Spirit to receive and respond to God’s living Word.

We gather for worship to remember who and whose we are.  We come to recount stories that shape our faith, stories that turn us from a collection of individuals into a community with a common source and vision.  The church as a worshiping community carries our biblical faith and spiritual tradition down through the ages to each individual.  We are joined to that community in Baptism, tutored in faith through the interpretation of scripture in preaching, and nourished at the Lord’s Table as a family of believers.  Life in the church teaches us that we are made for communion not only with God but with one another in Christ. (p. 60)

Ours is an invitation to the world to form a community of faithful followers of Christ who bring about Christ’s dominion on earth as we can only hope and imaging that it should be in heaven; wherein all God’s children are together as coequals, loving God and one another with all our heart, mind, and strength.

I’ve always been troubled by verses 11 – 14.  Not quite what you call a “happy ending” to a wedding reception. I don’t understand opening the gates to everyone, and then taking issue with the clothes of one of the guests, especially after the guest had been admitted and was seated.  Now if wedding clothes were provided at the door that people were obligated to put on, that would be a different matter, but that is not stated in the text.  And then to have bouncers apprehend the person and evict them sounds extreme.  Does the “many called—few chosen” formula have any relevance for our generation?

Say, who would Jesus expel from this feast of ours?

Again, most scholars agree that the ending sounds inconsistent with the rest that Jesus was saying.  Perhaps, Matthew the enforcement editor decided this sermon needed some fire and brimstone in it to get people moving toward the altar faster.  My concern does not end with the literary or critical question about whether Jesus actually made reference to the rejection of one of the guest or whether Matthew added it.  The bigger question for me, 2000 years removed from the parable is how has the church’s understanding of God’s Guest List evolved during that time?
Is Matthew’s guest list, with its markings of bias, discrimination, and rejection still treated as a decisive word on who is acceptable for admission to God’s banquet?  Or, have we finally embraced fully God’s unequivocal assignment to “Invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet!”

Do we truly welcome and include whosoever will, regardless of dress, class, caste, or identity? 

I want so desperately to believe that Jesus was casting an authentic vision of a truly beloved community that is capable of welcoming the unfolding and entire diversity that we find in God’s creation?

There’s wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.

But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own;
And we magnify God’s strictness with a zeal God will not own.
(Frederick W. Faber)

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