A Death in Blacksburg

A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 23A
Matthew 22:1-14

There was a death in Blacksburg this week that wasn’t in the paper and didn’t make the news as far as I can tell.  Teddy died.  Some of you will ask, “Who is Teddy?”  Others of you will immediately know the name and know who I’m speaking of.  Still others of you will remember when I preached an entire sermon about Teddy some five years ago now.

You see, Teddy was a homeless man who spent most of his days on the streets of Blacksburg.  He was the large African American man you’d see down around Gables Shopping Center much of the time.  Well, one day, Teddy showed up here.

It was the evening of the service Christ Church was holding to install me as the new campus minister.  Bishop Powell was here to mark the occasion, and there was a large crowd, including many students.  At some point during the service, Teddy came in quietly and sat in the back.  I certainly wanted him to feel welcome at our church, after all, that’s what churches are for, right?  We help people in need…

As we received people at the door at the end of the service, Teddy slipped past the crowd and disappeared out the door.  I will admit it – I was somewhat relieved.  It wasn’t until I got to the dinner in the parish hall that I saw Teddy with a plate full of food standing against the wall.

To my horror, one of the students in our group suddenly went over to him.  I couldn’t believe it – she was inviting him to sit at her table.  “Wait!” I wanted to yell, “Don’t you see you’ll frighten off the new students!”  Her generosity and naked display of hospitality taught me a lesson and left me a feeling pretty ashamed.

As far as I know, Teddy never came back to Christ Church for a service or even a meal.  He would come by the church looking for a ride to the Lake Terrace Motel, and we would often pay for him to stay there for a night.  I don’t know much else about Teddy.  I know that some of you knew him better and could fill in a bit of his biography.  As I was searching the Roanoke Times website for an obituary, I was struck by the language I read in the listings I found:  Sue Frances Saul, 83, of Roanoke…   Daniel Garland Allen, 60, of Pembroke… and so forth.  What could they write about Teddy?  Teddy (last name unknown), (age unknown), last known address – the streets of Blacksburg.

Teddy and his visit to Christ Church came to mind as I read this rather shocking Gospel lesson for today.  “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  Ok, we’ve heard parables like this before, Jesus – the landowner and his son; the wealthy merchant and his stewards…

Last week we heard one of the most disturbing parables Jesus ever told – that of the landowner and the wicked tenants.  So this parable fits into the pattern nicely.  A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he sends his servants to call everyone who had been invited to come to the banquet.  But these A-list guests make light of the invitation, ignore it, or in some cases abuse and kill the kings servants.  That should sound familiar.

But then we hear these shocking details – in his rage, the king sends troops to destroy the guests and burn their city.  Wow!   Is this king overreacting or what?  But then we hear a happier note – the king still intends to give the banquet, but now the servants go into the streets to invite everyone they find – the good and the bad.  This king is determined to have a party!  This is a happy scene – the unworthy are suddenly invited to the banquet and made worthy.

But then it seems, when all is happy and the banquet is going well, this king loses his mind again!  He finds a guest not wearing the proper wedding garment, and the king orders him not just to be thrown out, but tied up and cast basically into hell!

Jesus then ends this parable with these ominous words – many are called but few are chosen.

Now, I hope most of you have been paying enough attention over the past few weeks to know that Jesus is not scolding people who come to the synagogue wearing sweat pants instead of their best tunic, just as the previous parables about the landowner and the tenants weren’t about real estate disputes.

The king in this parable, perhaps more than in any other of Jesus’ parables, is furious.  He is enraged at the rejection of the original guests, so much so that he has them killed and their city burned.

Details like that should make us notice something about the context of when this gospel was written.  Most scholars agree that Matthew was written down sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Roman armies burned the Temple and much of the city in 70 AD.  Is Jesus being prophetic here?  Perhaps.  Is the writer of Matthew inserting a detail that would have been late-breaking news to his original audience?  That seems more likely.

The writer of Matthew is making a rather strong indictment of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day, and his own for that matter.  They rejected God’s servants – John the Baptist and even Jesus were killed by this very group of the religious elite, and the destruction of Jerusalem was seen as a judgment on them.  Matthew’s writer puts the words in Jesus’ mouth as a prophecy, yes.  But by the time this gospel was written, Jerusalem was a smoking ruin, and the population had been scattered.

So it’s not hard to see the parallels – the original guests reject the invitation and they are judged.  Jesus came to the religious establishment in Jerusalem to call them back to God, they rejected and ultimately killed Jesus, and now they have been judged.  The invitation then goes to unlikely, everyday people – “the good and the bad,” as the parable says.  They are invited to the wedding banquet, and they come.  These could be seen as the outcasts from Jewish society or even the Gentiles which by the time the Gospel was written were discovering this new faith of the followers of Jesus.

But what about this one guest?  Is there a parallel?  Who is he?

Weddings were a big deal in their culture.  If an important person were having a marriage in their family, it was a major production.  The whole community would have known about it.  Preparations could take weeks.  In the case of this parable, it was the king throwing the party.  The expectations were even higher.  When the time came, everyone was ready.

Everyone was ready, that is, except this one miserable guest who shows up not wearing a wedding garment.  We’ve heard parables like this before – the foolish virgins who let their lamps go out and aren’t prepared when the bridegroom arrives late at night.  The foolish virgins are locked out and can’t get into the wedding banquet at all, because they were not prepared.

So it is with this unfortunate guest – he comes unprepared, and the king knows it.  He even has nothing to say when the king confronts him.  Weddings are a time for celebration, and the king wants everyone to celebrate with him at the wedding of his son.  The king is the king – he is free to do what he wants to do.  It’s the king’s party, and his rules are the only ones that count.  We’ve already seen what his temper is like, so is it a surprise that he loses it when he comes across this guest who has managed to get into the banquet, even though his attire suggests he’d rather be someplace else.

This is not about getting dressed up for church.  This is more about coming to God prepared, ready for what God wants to give us.  Would you come to the altar rail with a newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other?  You can do that at home, and be much more comfortable, I’d say.  When we come to church, it expresses something about who we are – we are needy people.  We come here hungry.  We want something from God, and often from each other.  We need community.  We are hungry for that connection.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.

When Teddy came to church that one night, we could say, “Eh, it was only to get a free meal.”  But isn’t that why we often come?  If Teddy came hungry and let it show, I think he was the best attired of us all.  Teddy wasn’t a beggar at the feast – he was an honored guest!  It is those who come to God with pride and self-satisfaction first that need to go and change their clothes.

I think this parable, when it is not simply bad news for the people of Jerusalem, should remind us that God sees our hearts.  God knows is we are truly prepared for worship, true worship.  God has invited us to the banquet.  Let us prepare our hungry hearts to receive, and let us wear the wedding garment of celebration.  Amen.

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