This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Matthew 22:1-14.
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Did anybody here happen to catch the royal wedding on TV earlier this year? Pretty impressive, wasn’t it? Of course, there’s the dress. Everybody wanted to know what Princess Kate would be wearing that day (designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen’s fashion house, in case anyone was still wondering). There was all the dazzling royal regalia and decoration. I, for one, was particularly impressed with how they managed to get so many full grown trees inside to line the center aisle of Westminster Abbey! Being the theology nerd that I am, I’m probably the only person who tuned in primarily to hear the Bishop of London’s sermon. What does one write for such an occasion? As it turns out, he did a pretty good job. I especially liked his quote from St. Catherine of Siena, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
However, there was one thing about the whole affair that I found disconcerting: my invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail! Did this happen to anyone else? We were invited, right? I mean, why wouldn’t we be invited? We’re basically nice people, aren’t we? I’m sure we’d behave ourselves. No one would put a whoopee cushion underneath Prince Charles’ seat (at least not during the service). Who knows? We could have really shown those royal types a good time!
Alas, the reality is that regular folks like us don’t usually get invited to royal weddings. Those invitations only go out to those who possess this-worldly qualities of nobility and celebrity. The Prime Minister of England was there. Elton John was there. One of the Spice Girls was there. You know, important people, the rich and famous, the elite. Yes, it was quite a spectacle. The couple kissed, cameras flashed, and everyone had a wonderful time.
Now imagine with me, if you will, what would happen if people from London’s “elite” had started turning down their invitations. The excuses might seem innocuous at first: Elton John is busy recording his new album, Parliament is passing important legislation, the Spice Girls are getting back together. Important people have important things to do, right? But then imagine that the royal couriers start coming back with horrible stories. One by one, they burst through door of Buckingham Palace, panting and wounded. “Something’s happening,” they say, “They’re turning on us out there!” Queen Elizabeth quickly turns on the TV, just in time to see Prime Minister David Cameron on the screen, tearing up his wedding invitation and publicly executing the royal courier on live TV! With the gun still smoking in his hand, he loudly proclaims, “We’ll do the same thing to every single member of the royal family!”
Anyone who saw that bloody broadcast would have to agree that it looked an awful lot like the beginnings of a civil war in the UK and the insurgents picked the day of the royal wedding to make their move! Guards, police, and military would be immediately deployed to deal with the insurrection. Instead of riding to the wedding in a Rolls Royce, Kate pulls up in an armored jeep. Instead of elegantly striding into the church, she ducks and runs inside as soldiers lay down cover fire over her head. Machine gun fire drowns out most of the Bishop’s sermon. Explosions outside cause Westminster Abbey to rumble and shake. This would not have been the wedding day that William and Kate had hoped for. Most of us would probably feel quite sorry for them in that situation.
On the other hand, there would be something brave and admirable in the couple’s decision to continue with their wedding in a war zone. Like Bruce Cockburn said, they would be “lovers in a dangerous time”. It would be a powerful symbolic gesture, as though William and Kate were celebrating the power of love in defiance of the power of death. Fortunately though, William and Kate didn’t have to make that call on their special day together.
In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus tells us a story about a wedding where such a tragedy did happen. A king sends out wedding invitations to his noble subjects and receives rejections in return. What’s even worse is that people start beating up and killing the royal messengers as acts of rebellion against the king. The National Guard gets called and it’s an all out civil war. But the royal wedding goes ahead as planned, in spite of opposition from without and within. In fact, the king takes advantage of this crisis in order to fling wide the doors of his palace and invite all the everyday people on the street. He says, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Matthew’s gospel tells us that all kinds of people, “both good and bad”, came to the wedding. Luke’s gospel goes into even more detail, telling us specifically that “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” were all welcome at this celebration of love.
Jesus tells this story in order to show us how the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding in a war zone. Now, it’s important to remember here that “the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus mentions has little or nothing to do with the afterlife. Jesus isn’t talking about “going to heaven when you die.” He’s talking about a present-day reality in this world. “Heaven” is just a Jewish euphemism for the word “God”. “Kingdom” can also mean “reign”, “dominion”, or “territory”. It’s a spiritual state of being, rather than a geographical location. The “kingdom of heaven” or “reign of God” exists wherever God’s way of love is followed rather than the ways of the world. Jesus is saying that the life of faith is an all-inclusive celebration of life and love that goes on in spite of the all-pervasive destruction that’s going on around us. Theologian William Stringfellow referred to this as “living humanly in the midst of death.”
Each one of us is cordially invited by God to live a life of faith in the present reality of the kingdom of heaven. When I say “faith” I’m not just talking about subscription to a set of doctrines, adherence to a set of morals, or participation in certain rituals. “Faith” in this sense of the word is a heart-felt response to God’s loving invitation that rises up from the very core of your being. It’s that part of you that says “Yes” inside to the all-inclusive celebration of love. It’s a radical act of defiance against the power of this world where “might makes right”, “the ends justify the means”, and “history is written by the winners”. Whenever someone chooses reconciliation over retribution, that’s the kingdom of heaven breaking through. Whenever someone chooses trust over cynicism, that’s the kingdom of heaven breaking through. Whenever the rigid armor of this world system cracks in some small way, even for just a moment, and let’s a little bit of light and humanity in, that’s the kingdom of heaven breaking through. We pray for this to happen every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I’d like to illustrate this point with a true story taken from a book by Philip Yancey called What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to thirteen thousand dollars. After leaving a check for half that amount as down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.
The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”
When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to thirteen hundred dollars back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry. Really, I am.”
It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party—–not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—–“in honor of the groom,” she said—and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.
That’s the kingdom of heaven on earth!
When I ask you about your faith, I honestly couldn’t care less about your religious affiliation or observance. What I want to know (and what God wants to know) is whether you are the kind of person who would go to a wedding in a war zone. Will you join in the celebration of God’s all-inclusive love in the midst of this violent and broken world?
What do you say? Are you with me in this?
If anything deep inside of you is answering “Yes” to that question right now, listen to it! That’s the power of faith, hope, and love rising up inside of you. That’s the kind of faith that has the power to sustain us through the ups and downs of life. That’s the kind of faith that has the power to renew our church. That’s the kind of faith that has the power to change the world.