19th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
I’m pretty sure this gospel is not about what we think it is.
There’s the old story of the pastor giving a children’s sermon, where every week the children anticipate him making a new point about Jesus. This particular week he begins by holding up a stuffed squirrel and asking, “Boys and girls, do you know what this is?” Silence. The pastor asks again. Silence. Finally, one little boy is bold enough to shyly raise his hand and offer, “Gee, I know it’s Sunday School and I’m supposed to say it’s Jesus, but it sure looks like a squirrel to me.”
If you’ve heard this morning’s gospel passage before, then something like that was probably running through your own mind as you heard it again. Jesus in his parables often uses kings or lords as metaphors for God. So as soon as he begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…,” we immediately think this king must be a metaphor for God.
But wait a minute. This king doesn’t look at all like the God of Jesus. This king a cruel tyrant. He invites some folks to a wedding banquet, but when they boycott, he blows them all away, sending soldiers to kill them all and burn their city. Then to the folks left alive he sends out a second round of invitations. When these folks hear what this king does to people who turn him down, is it any wonder they now fill the banquet hall? It’s an offer they cannot refuse. Knowing what that cruel tyrant did to the first invitees, would you turn him down?
This king is not a metaphor for God, but rather a symbol of cruel tyrannies throughout history.
And in this story, one man stands there defiant. He refuses to dance and sing at the king’s wedding; he refuses to wear a wedding garment. When the king challenges him, the man remains silent, so the king then binds him hand and foot, and casts him into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Some scripture scholars say this man without the wedding garment represents Jesus, who, later in the gospel, would stand silent and defiant before King Herod and would then be cast out and killed.
What does the kingdom of heaven look like? It looks like this young man standing defiantly against the Herods of this world. It is a defiance that emerges from love. It’s the kind of defiant love that Martin Luther King echoed many years later when he said:
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
The defiance of love.
We have two competing worldviews in this gospel reading: one of the Herods of this world in which violence and cruelty and abusive power reign; the other of Jesus and Dr. King and so many others, a reign of nonviolence, of solidarity with outcasts, of love.
The fact is, we’re very familiar with the Herods of this world.
- In Herod’s reign, a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, the anniversary of whose death we remembered this past week, gets tied to a lonely fence post, severely beaten, and left to die
- In Herod’s reign, young people of color like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Amilcar, Mario Woods, Jessica Williams, Alex Nieto and so many others in San Francisco are gunned down by police.
- In Herod’s reign, immigrant families are torn apart by deportation at an increasingly fast clip.
But here at St. John’s, in our better moments, we choose something different: the reign of Jesus. In our best moments over the years:
- Members of this parish have tutored young people from this neighborhood, many of them fugitives from Central America in the 70s and 80s, to make sure they could finish high school and go on to college. The reign of Jesus.
- A few years later, this parish became a welcoming home and a sanctuary to many gay men with HIV who had been ostracized from their families and churches. The reign of Jesus.
We still do this.
- Every Saturday morning this space is hopping as the Julian Pantry distributes food to people from our neighborhood and City. The reign of Jesus.
- Every weekday morning, homeless people, harassed and unwelcomed in many parts of our city and who spend the night getting shuffled from one sidewalk to another, can finally find a safe, quiet, dry place for much needed sleep. The reign of Jesus.
- In a time when immigrant families are being ripped apart by a cruel immigration system, we accompany and provide sanctuary to Allan and Mirza and Isrrael who fled here for their lives from Central America.
- And some of us continue to pray with our feet on Nightwalks calling for an end to violence on the streets of our neighborhood, whether that violence is by random individuals, or gangs, or the police.
These things flow from what we remember each Sunday when we circle this table to share a simple meal as the Lord commanded–this circle where Anglos and People of Color, people with disabilities, old and young, gay and straight, university professors, and homeless people, stand side-by-side as friends–just the way God intended. A glimpse of another reign, another way of living; a radical alternative to the cruel regimes of the Herods of this world.
In these perilous, cruel times, we, like that young man refusing to wear a wedding garment, want to matter, to stand defiantly for love, for something different than the reign of Herod.
This is why we show up here week after week, pray as we can, volunteer as we’re able, and yes, in these days of the stewardship campaign, reach into our bank accounts to keep our community strong, defiant, welcoming, kind.
Jan Richardson captures what I think many of us have experienced here at St. John’s: at times a shelter in a storm, a healing embrace, and then a sending back out into the world.
A Blessing Called Sanctuary
You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.
You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.
You learned to sing.
But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found—
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:
that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,*
and you are welcome
and more than welcome
(I am indebted to Paul J. Nuechterlein for the main insight of this sermon. See his version: http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a_2008_ser.htm)