Sunday, October 9, 2011

Proper 23 A - Oct 9, 2011

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
Proper 23 A - Sunday, September 18, 2011

Exodus 32:1-14
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

I suppose we have all been invited to weddings we weren’t sure we wanted to attend. People we don’t know especially well, business and professional connections, distant relatives whose lives have diverged from ours, children of friends we have more or less lost touch with. It isn’t that we don’t wish the happy couple well. We do. We always do. But it’s what surrounds it – the travel, the gift, the strangers we find ourselves placed next to, the loud music at the dinner or party that makes it impossible to talk to the strangers even if we find each other interesting, the Sunday-best clothes we need to wear. The general sense that everything had better go close to perfect or else. So much work for such a short ceremony.

Shortly after I became rector of my first parish, I agreed to preside at a wedding for a colleague who had an emergency. I didn’t know the couple or their families. In fact, I didn’t know a soul involved. It was all planned. I arrived for the practice the night before. The service and celebration were at a lodge – Elks, or perhaps Moose, or maybe Oddfellows – which had a nice hall and a lovely garden, well watered, lush and green. The ceremony was to be in the garden. The theme of the wedding was country and western. The young people were charming, as were their parents. But the arrangements were in the control of a wedding coordinator, a formidable lady who in another era could easily have been a colonel in the ladies’ division of the Waffen SS. She led us through the event with terrifying assurance. The principal challenge was that the garden space was not very deep, and so she let us know that it was vitally important that as the bridal party walked down the aisle, they do so deliberately, stepping slowly, to savor the music and the moment. Everyone practiced walking in to “Oh my love, my darling, I hunger for your kiss”. It must have taken at least 10 minutes to get everyone in, though it seemed much, much longer. I could see the humor in some eyes, and the anxiety in others’, as this lady practiced her craft on us. She had thought of everything. Except the space for the actual wedding.

Late the next afternoon all assembled in their wedding garments. The shoes were what interested me. The men’s cowboy boots had fairly narrow heels, and the women wore white pumps with alarming stiletto heels. The wedding director had sequestered the party behind a door so they could not be seen, nor could they see. The music began. “Oh my love, my darling”. The first bridesmaid and groomsman started slowly up the turf grass aisle, waiting step by step as instructed. The stiletto heels started to sink into the turf. Step by step, each step a little more urgent. As successive couples entered this went on and on, ever more holes being punched in the turf, until there was hardly a solid space for the bride’s heels at all. I learned that day there’s a kind of movement you have to make to get your heels out of turf. Then came the standing in line for the actual promises. Not only stiletto heels sank ever deeper in the turf, but so did the small, sharp heels of cowboy boots. I did what I could to shorten the agony, but there’s only so much you can do to shorten the marriage service, especially when the bride’s little sister is reading St. Paul's 13th Chapter to the Corinthians. Love is patient I thought was especially appropriate. Fortunately, the young people had caught onto the humor of it and they were actually enjoying it, and the bride was the best sport of all. There was lots of goodnatured laughter and the dancing later seemed to take on the special step they’d all just learned. But the wedding director was beside herself. Her fixed smile at the end of the service, if turned toward the west, over the sea, could have frozen the state of Hawaii.

We often think the worst thing that can go wrong with a well-planned wedding is some sort of social faux pas, a gaffe that embarrasses everyone and perhaps jinxes the marriage. Perfection is the goal. And so we think of the unfortunate guest who didn’t have his wedding garment on, and pity him, shocked at the king’s violent response. But of course, weddings are never just about the couple, and they are not just about getting the social niceties correct. They are about the community that comes together around the couple. A wedding is an anticipatory celebration of the future, and the couple being married is the symbol of that future – new life growing out of their love, new possibilities for the community emerging from their union. It is the joining of families, and so parents and relatives surround the couple, creating a new constellation of relationships. The guests are not just witnesses but participants in this renewal of communal hope, so a guest who flaunts the customs puts his or her ego needs before the needs of the community. To be inappropriate is an insult .

This being the case, it is interesting to me in our gospel story today that the young man being married is hardly mentioned, and the bride not at all. The story of this wedding, as is often the story about weddings, is about the parents and the guests. What is important here is the social reality that this wedding represents. This is not a private ceremony at a small lodge in Orange County, California. It is a royal wedding. It is not about the private joy of two families and their anticipation of a new and better future, but represents the future course of a nation, the continuance of the legitimate governing order, prosperity and possibility for everyone. We focus on the guest who came in the wrong clothes. But let’s look at it from the point of view of the king for a moment.

A king would invite the great and the good, as the British would say. The rich and powerful and well connected would all be expected to attend and honor the king by their presence and their gifts. They represent the people, who are present by proxy. But something is seriously wrong in this kingdom. None of the great and the good show up. It’s as though there’s been a revolution and the king somehow didn’t get the memo. It is, of course, an extreme, even preposterous, situation, the kind Jesus loves to use to draw a vivid picture. What if the king gave a party and no-one came? Except this is worse. This wedding is about the continuation of the king’s legitimate rule after he is gone, through his son and his son’s children. These people aren’t just being socially rude. They are rejecting the king’s right to be their king. And so he reacts, with political violence. He eliminates the powerful and invites instead the powerless, the poor, the people of the street, both good and bad. They are all made welcome. The king finds in ordinary people the legitimacy for his rule and its continuation through his son.

I think we can figure out what this parable is referring to without too much difficulty. In remembering and writing down this story of Jesus the early Church is telling itself a story about itself, about why God has rejected his chosen people and replaced them with the riffraff of the rest of the world, Greeks, Romans, barbarians, the good and the bad, none of them part of the original covenant. But here they are, all of them, invited to the feast, dressed up and having the time of their life at the party they never thought they would even see from outside the windows of the hall, let alone as honored guests. What a surprise! What a turnaround! What a joy! To be the king’s invited guests at the wedding symbolizing the new life of the kingdom! Perhaps they are all rehearsing the wedding song of the lamb for that other great celebration yet to come.

All except one. One who doesn’t understand. Or doesn’t care. Or is caught up in his own self-centered world. Who sees no reason to change when she receives the invitation. Who doesn’t realize that he is called to something new and wonderful and different, to something that she needs to respond to, to say yes to, to change himself for. One who came to this event of a lifetime dressed as if she were going to the market to buy a fish for dinner. But this is the transforming event of a lifetime, and he is not responding.

We are told in the commentaries that wedding garments were provided, as ties used to be ready in the old days for negligent customers at restaurants of a certain sort. No one needed to be embarrassed. The host’s generosity covered – literally covered – the shortcomings of the guests. All were made worthy, all were equally prepared for the wedding banquet. This person has evidently refused to show respect for his host, for his king. What a shame for her. What a shame for us all if we misunderstand our invitation.

The truth is, we are the riffraff of the rest of the world. We are the powerless, the poor, the people of the street, the good and the bad. As St. Paul says, How many of us were powerful when we were called? How many of us were rich, or well esteemed in the eyes of the world? God has chosen us for his celebration because others more worthy than we refused to come. What can we do except put on our best clothes, or trust that when we get to the wedding hall, garments will be provided? Then we can all march slowly in, learning to walk gracefully even if our heels start sinking into the turf because we really don’t know anything at all about where we’re going and what it’s like. If we truly welcome the invitation to the kingdom, we’ll smile and laugh and shout for joy together with that wonderful couple and their friends. And maybe there will be a wedding garment for the one who thought she was in control but wasn’t.

It took her a while to get over herself, but in a little while she changed her icy smile for warmth. She realized she wasn’t really dressed right for the wedding. She changed her attitude, put on her wedding garment, and joined the dance.
picture credit: La Vida Creations

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Thank you for such an enlightening and thoughtful sermon. It was delightful and inspiring to hear in-person.