The man without a wedding garment

19th Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
Proper 23
Sunday, October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

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
entirely—
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.
Tentative steps
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
in safety,
in stasis.
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
here.
—Jan Richardson

(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)

Choose Your Own Adventure

Burntshirt-Vineyard-Crest-of-the-Blue-Ridge

Sunday, October 8, 2017
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year A
Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

Back in the nineties, grade school kids were reading Choose Your Own Adventure novels. These were slim volumes, written in the second person, that allowed you as the reader to decide at key moments how the story would proceed. (“If you decide to jump down on the woolly mammoth, turn to page 29. If you decide to continue on foot, turn to page 30.”) The books were the kind of thing you could find in a child’s backpack alongside Matchbox cars. (See “THE MOVIE WITH A THOUSAND PLOTLINES; Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?” By Raffi Khatchadourian. The New Yorker.)

Think of today’s gospel story as something like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Jesus sets a scene, but you get to decide how the story ends.

Here’s the scene. A man plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress in it, and builds a watch-tower. Then he leases the vineyard to tenants and goes to another country. At harvest time he sends his slaves to collect the produce. The tenants beat, stone, and kill those slaves. He sends a second delegation; they beat and kill them as well.

Finally, he sends his son–”They will at least respect my son,” he reasons. But they throw the son out of the vineyard and kill him.

That’s the scene. Now, choose your adventure. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” How do you want this story to end?

When Jesus poses this choice to the religious leaders in today’s gospel, they choose an ending of violence and retaliation. “[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Don’t pussy-foot around with petty dictators. Throw them out! Give them a taste of their own medicine!

This ending they choose reflects the logic of the Roman Empire they have aligned themselves with. Although they themselves are oppressed Jews in a land brutally occupied by the Romans, these religious leaders have nevertheless bought into the logic of Rome. It’s the logic of retaliation echoed today by the current president and his evangelical admirers: “If somebody hits me,” the current president says, “I have to hit them back harder. I have to.”

Jesus chooses a different ending to the story. He quotes one of the psalms.

Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The “fruits of the kingdom”: Things like compassion, forgiveness, a welcome to the outcast, justice for people living under oppression. The shorthand word for the adventure Jesus chooses is “resurrection”. That which was rejected–the path of Jesus–is lifted up. The way of Jesus, of mercy and redemption, has the final say.

Play this out for a second. Imagine what this second ending, the one Jesus chooses, might look like. Say you are one of the tenants on this vast estate. You’re working in the hot sun while a well-dressed boy, the heir of the estate, coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. You and the other workers resent this kid. You rebel. The grapes start to grow wild diminishing any chance of an abundant harvest.

A few years later, the son, now a young man, returns to collect the produce. You join in the attack and kill him.

Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow tenant are dragged before the judge, and you fully expect to be sent up for life. But instead, the owner of the vineyard shows up in court–with the son you killed. Although this young man’s wounds are still very real, he is very much alive. You’re shaking in your boots.

Then, to your amazement, the father gets out his will and announces that he is bequeathing the entire vineyard not only to his son but also to you and all the other tenants. The father and his son welcome all of you back to the vineyard as joint owners. You are no longer workers but fellow heirs–invited to go back to work, cultivating the grapes, producing so much wine for the wedding feast it will never run out. (See reflections by Andrew Marr.)

These two possible endings–that of the religious leaders and that of Jesus–could not be more different. One is a story of shock and awe: It follows the logic of an empire rich and powerful and exacting revenge. The other is a story of resurrection in which the path of Jesus, the way of mercy and the possibility of redemption have the final say.

Which ending do you choose? Which path?

The choice might seem easy when we’re sitting here in church. Not so easy when we get out there, where the voice of Empire, sometimes loud, sometimes subtle, seeks to hold sway over our hearts, our feelings, the choices we make.

Faced with an onslaught of messages from the Empire, choosing the path of Jesus can be difficult. Which is why we need each other. Compassion is not a one-person show. When it comes to following Jesus, no one can go it alone.

Staying faithful to the way of Jesus requires a community in which, as Ram Dass says, we’re just walking each other home. In such a community, we can hold each other accountable to our deepest values, comfort and support each other in the ups and downs along the way.

It’s why we have this community of St. John’s. We need each other.

If in this Stewardship season, we each wrestle with how we’re going to help with the financial needs of this community, it’s precisely so we can provide those material things that help keep us together, keep us faithful:

  • Money to cover the costs of this sacred space in which we wrestle with the Scriptures and what they call us to, this space in which we gather for Eucharist, in which we laugh and cry together as we tell our stories and celebrate the important moments in our spiritual journeys–our baptisms, weddings, funerals.
  • Money to hire a musician, a parish administrator to run the office, a priest.
  • Money that makes possible the many ministries we organize and sustain: ministries to the homeless, the victims of violence, the hungry, our friends in Nicaragua who need clean water, the young people in this neighborhood who need a little extra help with school.

The adventure of Jesus has many practical implications for how we live our lives, including financial implications. Our decision to give money to this community flows out of our deep desire to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus, walking the path he walks, choosing the adventure he chooses.

None of us can do this adventure alone. For this, we need each other.

Maya Angelou puts it this way:

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

 

Saying Yes and meaning it

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

[Click here for the video.]

The two sons in this gospel story are sent to the vineyard: one says yes, but never sets foot in the vineyard; the other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. The moral is not hard to grasp, and the cliches come tumbling out: Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. As Jesus says in another place, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father.” And St. James puts it starkly: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26).

In the end, it’s not about what you say, but what you do.

Somehow we’ve gotten all messed up. We’ve come to think believing in Jesus is a matter of getting the words right, of making some disembodied, intellectual Yes to a checklist of doctrines and finely honed theological statements. Somewhere along the line, the litmus test for being a Christian became a matter of correctly rattling off all the obscure theological words. We got it backward.

Marcus Borg says this distortion of what it means to believe came out of the Protestant Reformation.

Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by the doctrines they subscribed to.

Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian came to mean assenting to the right doctrines now for the sake of heaven later.

But it was all so different in the early church, which had no clear consensus about doctrines, and in which a variety of opinions held sway. They did not call themselves “People with the absolutely correct theological doctrine you better believe or you’ll burn in hell forever,”–they did not call themselves that. Rather, they called themselves simply “the people of the Way”–that is, the Way of Jesus. For them, it was less about correct doctrinal statements and more about following Jesus–sharing food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the immigrant and the stranger, visiting the sick and the incarcerated, working for peace. Being people of the Way.

Then, a few hundred years after Jesus, the bishops and Emperor Constantine wrote what we now call the Nicene Creed. It’s in your service bulletin; we’ll recite again in a few minutes. Like so many works from other times and places–like our scriptures and our hymns, like the music of Thomas Tallis or Bach, or the plays of Shakespeare–the Nicene Creed was written by people with experiences and challenges and ways of thinking very different from ours. For that reason, like the works of Shakespeare or Bach, it can take a little work to understand it.

And yet, even in this statement, however obscure and baffling to us, we can see the earlier understanding of what it meant to believe: It’s not about an intellectual conviction, but rather a way of life.

The creed begins with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But at the root of the Latin word “credo” lie two smaller words: cor, meaning “heart”, and do meaning “I give.” At its root, the word credo means “I give my heart.” In other words, saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following theological affirmations to be literally true,” but rather,

  • “I give my heart to one God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is.
  • And “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? God’s beloved child, who was born into this world, became fully human, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.
  • And “I give my heart to the Holy Spirit” — and who’s that? The Lord and giver of Life who has spoken through our prophets and our ancestors.

And so on…

Belief is not just a matter of subscribing to some list of doctrinal statements. Rather, it’s about giving away your heart in a passionate, and compassionate, way of life. It’s about saying Yes and meaning it.

And later in the creed, we say “I give my heart to the church–that all-too-human community that many of us have struggled with over the years to be sure, but one that nevertheless tries, in its best moments and however imperfectly, to follow the Way of Jesus.

Here at St. John’s we are part of this larger community, and for us, our being church comes with a few specifics:

  • Radical hospitality to a motley crew of people, including those needing a safe, dry, quiet place to sleep;
  • Protection and accompaniment of refugees from the poverty and violence now laying siege to their struggling Central American countries
  • Strong arms and legs and backs and a little cash to help rural Nicaraguans build latrines and water stations
  • A prophetic outcry against the increasingly shrill voices of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hatred
  • A plea for an end to the violence both nationally and here in the Mission, whether
  • that violence comes from random individuals, gangs, or police
    A special pride at seeing so many young people in this struggling neighborhood finish high school and head off to college because of the work of Mission Graduates

It’s not just about some disembodied, left-wing, progressive agenda for saving the world. It’s about following Jesus.

And it’s not some disembodied, abstract, lofty ideal. It’s more real than that, more practical; it’s about credit cards and bank balances and checkbooks and squeezing what you can from your already meager resources. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear a few reflections about our financial stewardship of this community.

This stewardship is about living into what we say we believe, and about our deepest values as followers of Jesus. It’s about being people of the Way who are willing to sacrifice to do the works of love.

It’s about giving your heart away, saying Yes and meaning it.

MERCY

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

[Click here for the video.]

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered with many neighbors up on 26th and Van Ness to remember 23-year-old Abel Esquivel. He had been shot and killed on that spot a few days before.

I had seen Abel over at CARECEN, one of our local non-profits. He had left gang life many years before, and was mentoring other young people who were also trying to leave the gangs.

Late one night, Abel was home with his mom. She hadn’t eaten, and the fridge was empty, so he headed up the street to buy her a burrito. On his way home, a car pulled up and fired several rounds into his body. He lay on the ground for several minutes, then managed to get up, pick up the burrito, and take it home to his mom. She immediately rushed him to the hospital where he died a short time later.

The evening I stood in remembrance at 26th and Van Ness, I watched the Danzantes perform their beautiful ancient indigenous dances, every step a prayer. And I watched Abel’s mom quietly sobbing. I couldn’t help but wonder how I might feel if I ever lost my son this way.

They asked me to say a few words. I was not prepared. I said, “Well, I know the cliche is that time heals all wounds, but I’m not so sure about that. Some wounds never heal. Losing a child like Abel may be one of them.” Then I tried to muster whatever words of comfort and hope I could–knowing, of course, that I would inevitably sound like one of Job’s well-intentioned but vapid friends. Anything I might say in that moment would inevitably be hollow, completely inadequate to the pain Abel’s mom and family were feeling in that moment.

Some wounds go so deep they’re beyond the reach of whatever feeble but well-intentioned words we can muster. In the end, something else is needed.

And sometimes, such wounds are also beyond the reach of any given judicial system–the laws and procedures by which a given community tries to resolve disputes and restore just and healthy relationships.

Years ago, another young man was savagely murdered. His family went through hell: enormous grief and pain and tears and rage. They rightly demanded justice. After many years, a jury found the murderer guilty and sentenced him to death. The family was relieved. At last they would see justice for the murder of their son and brother, bring closure to this unspeakable ordeal, find some healing.

The day of the execution arrived, and the family waited in the viewing room. Eventually, the drapes to the execution chamber opened. They could see their son’s killer strapped to the gurney, his arms attached to IVs, and a monitor recording his every heartbeat.

When offered a chance to make a statement, the condemned man said nothing. The warden gave the go ahead, and the executioners began injecting the three lethal drugs into the man’s body, one after the other. Seven minutes later, the condemned man’s body lay dead on the gurney. The drapes closed; it was time for the family to leave.

The family’s parish priest had been with them, and he walked them back to their car. As he said goodbye to the young man’s mom, he gave her a hug, and opened the car door for her. The mom looked at him, and said to him in tears, “I don’t understand, but even after all this–even after all this–I still don’t feel closure, I still have all this pain.”

Sometimes healing is beyond the reach of the various laws and procedures a given community might establish to ensure healthy and just relationships. Sometimes we need more than a judicial system can provide.

Which brings us to today’s gospel. It follows last Sunday’s gospel about what to do when someone in the church commits a very real injustice against you. That gospel laid out the rudiments of a judicial system for the Christian community for resolving disputes and restoring broken relationships.

In that gospel, Jesus said if someone in the church seriously sins against you, don’t just let it go by without comment, brushing everything under the rug as though nothing has happened. That would be what one of our great theologians calls “cheap grace”.

No, when an injustice has been done to you or someone else, you must speak up. First, speak to the person directly. If, after that, the other person continues the abusive behavior, then bring one or two other members of the church to listen in and provide their perspectives. If that doesn’t achieve reconciliation, then bring the issue before the larger church. If, after exhausting each of these three steps, the other person continues their bad behavior, then put some distance between you and them–”Let them be as the Gentiles and the tax collectors to you,” to use Jesus’ words–set them outside your usual circle of friends and acquaintances.

But then what? Is that it? What happens if, after all the well-intentioned words and all the community’s judicial processes, the abusive behavior continues? What then? That’s where today’s gospel comes in.

As Peter sees it, the question then becomes: “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” He’s keeping score. He wants to know when the retaliation can finally begin, at what number can he finally strike back?

Peter seems to think seven might be the right outside number, which is pretty generous. Most people stop forgiving and start getting even at two.

But Jesus uses another number: seventy times seven. In other words, your willingness to forgive must be limitless. Jesus is getting at what must underlie all the judicial procedures and processes:

  • That through all the words and necessary judicial processes, you never give up your willingness to forgive
  • That you bring everything you have to the process of reconciliation
  • That you never give up on the possibility that your sister or brother can redeem themselves. Each of us is more than our own worst moments. We can never give up on the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.

But Jesus goes even further. This commitment to forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation, as he sees it, is rooted in the very rhythm of life. He tells a simple story of a servant who was forgiven a staggering debt, one that no one could repay in a million years, but who then refused to forgive another servant for a much lesser amount. Don’t be like that servant, Jesus says. Because you, like him, are swimming in a sea of mercy. And this mercy that frees you from your past mistakes and allows you a new future–this same mercy is meant to flow through you to others. This is one of the rhythms of life: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

This is how it works for Jesus. After all the well-intentioned but inadequate words and all the necessary but inadequate judicial processes have taken us as far as they can, mercy gets the last word.

Songwriter Mary Gauthier puts it this way:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now