Most scholars believe that the reference to the king and his reluctant guests is an anachronism. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew reads this back into the text-this event. This may be so, but to me, it feels like kind of a stretch. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, as it is written as canon, the story is one worthy of Hollywood. I see Sean Connery in the role of the king, perhaps Mel Gibson and Samuel L. Jackson as two of the unworthy people co-opted from the streets. Either James Woods or Tommy Lee Jones would be perfect in the role of the fellow wearing the wrong clothes. And the king's son? Who else but Tom Cruise? It is a story of danger, intrigue, risk, and, most especially, enormous opportunity.
That's right: opportunity. A few years ago I was sitting in the executive dining room at the University of Dubuque celebrating with some of the other trustees the exciting future of that institution, a future that has now become an exciting present. One wise, old trustee pointed to a painting on the wall: "You know what that is?" he asked us. "That is the Chinese symbol for both crisis and opportunity." That's what we find in our scripture lesson today, a story about crisis for some and opportunity for others.
A king is having a wedding for his son, and before anything more can be said, we already know that there is a problem. As heartwarming as weddings and receptions can be, we need to remember that sentimentality can blind us to the reality of the human dynamics, as most preachers can testify. Weddings-their planning and their execution-are always exercises in power: Who has it and who doesn't. The sort of questions that arise-such as who is invited, who sits in what pew with whom, and who dances with whom first at the reception-can bring up the very worst in people. Who can explain that very human need to establish a pecking order? I've been married for almost 19 years to the most wonderful woman and pastor's wife on the planet. But I can tell you that when it came to planning the wedding, I found myself in continuous hot water with my bride-to-be, her folks and family, and my folks and family. This experience gave birth to the conviction that I share with all grooms during their pre-marital counseling sessions: "Remember, young man, you are the least important member of the wedding party. Say nothing, think nothing, support your bride in all circumstances, and you will survive." Am I only the one who sees weddings as exercises in power? I think not. As Heinrich Heine once said, "The music of a wedding processional always reminds me of the music of soldiers going into battle." Weddings are about power, its distribution, and its use.
In Jesus' story the power dynamics are writ large. It is about a wedding, but it is also about a war. We can imagine a king who reigns over a loose confederation of land-owning and wealthy noblemen. To come to the wedding of the king's heir is to pay homage not only to the king but also to the heir. To fail to come, even for the best of reasons, is to send a message about who has final power over whom. As is the custom of that ancient time, the wedding invitation goes out without specifying date and time. This gives the guests the chance to prepare their finest clothes and to gather the most wonderful gifts for the occasion. Finally, the feast is ready, and the celebration begins! But one by one the noblemen reject the invitation, the wedding, the servants, and, ultimately, the king and his son. They are in revolt, some in obvious ways, some in more hidden ways, but all of them are in rebellion. The king in this story finds many in collusion against him and his kingdom is at risk.
So now what happens? The king shows himself to be a savvy character indeed. Having power exercised against him, he, too, exercises power. First, he sends his soldiers against those in open rebellion and crushes them. Then second, he undercuts the rest of the noblemen by creating a new class of supporters, what we might call the elevated underdogs. Looking for allies in his struggles against the noblemen, the king turns to common men and women who have nothing to offer the king other than their loyalty and a hunger for opportunity.
There is that word again: opportunity. In the crisis a shift in power is occurring, and the shift represents opportunity to those whose opportunities were previously very limited. Mao Tse-tung, we are told, in his effort to exercise revolutionary power-and running counter to the wisdom of his Soviet advisors-chose to make common cause with the Chinese peasants. Trampled upon by regime after regime, suddenly these peasants found themselves empowered by Mao so that they in turn might empower him. So it is in this story of Jesus. The common people, to their surprise, find themselves in a position of power.
Yet the story is not yet over. Indeed, the major point of this story still lies right in front of us and it is this: The majority of guests come to realize that if they are going to take advantage of the opportunity to be the friend of the king they had better dress and act the part. But one man does not. He sees only a free feed, and no opportunity beyond a doggie bag. For this reason, he is bounced from the party. He misses his opportunity.
There, I've said it again: opportunity. Let me add another word to this sermon's vocabulary list: entrepreneur. Here's a simple, biblically-based definition: An entrepreneur is someone who looks at a crisis and sees in it a very large opportunity given to him or her by God.
Let's face it, we human beings yearn to have stable, durable lives. As much as we grumble about the rut, we would be lost without it. As Americans, we want the political, military, and economic climate to be a certain way, a way that benefits us and that we can count on. That's why we hate terrorism. Terrorists, in an effort to create opportunities for their lives, intentionally disturb our lives. There is no moral justification for terrorism. As Benjamin Netanyahu has stated, the defense of a government against armed combatants cannot be equated morally with an attack on defenseless children. But you and I need to understand the intent of terrorists: They want to create crises so as to shift the power structure, perhaps even destroy it, in order to create opportunities for themselves. In this sense, they are entrepreneurs.
I'm not an advocate for terrorism, but I do want us to come face to face with the opposite extreme that so many of us find so comforting. If you and I want to go into a situation where all is calm and peaceful, where everything and everybody stay in their place, you and I should move into a cemetery. You can't get much more stable or orderly than that! Yet, the cemetery is the one place where you and I, six feet under, find very little opportunity.
For some people, that's what the routine of their lives has become. As one author has framed it, a rut is a grave without ends. Because their lives do not change, either through their own wishes or because of some outside coercion, life no longer holds opportunity for them. There are no entrepreneurs where it is granted that life must remain frozen in place.
Is his book Revolution of the Saints, Michael Walzer describes how the medieval view of calling insisted that people stay in the same position, using the same gifts to accomplish the same goals all of their lives. This was also close to Martin Luther's perspective. The Calvinists, however, had a different perspective, according to Walzer. When God calls-from the Calvinist perspective-God can call a person into an entirely different position, using an entirely different set of gifts. This made Calvinists a restless bunch, much more comfortable with revolution and the entrepreneurial needs of capitalism, according to Walzer. That is, compared to the medieval church and even the Lutherans, Calvinists were much more willing to take advantage of opportunities created by political and economic turmoil.
Tyrants and those in positions of privilege fear all change. But how about us? Do we approach the transitions and stresses of life with fear and dread, or do we have an entrepreneurial outlook on life, seeing the opportunities that lie therein?
Jean-Paul Sartre in his play "No Exit" portrays persons locked in a cage. They cannot escape their imprisonment, and they are in despair. But halfway through the play, the cage door swings open; still, those inside refuse to leave the cage. The opportunity to escape presents itself, but they do nothing about it. How would you have responded to this moment of freedom?
Newspaper man Zechariah Chafee once remarked that "Freedom from something is not enough. It should be freedom for something." Freedom is not safety, but it is opportunity.
On September 11, 2001, the world changed, and we better understood this type of freedom. Immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Center, service station owners raised the price of gas exponentially. Such profiteering is common in a disaster. But there were also entrepreneurs who stepped forward, people who laid aside their lives and went to New York to lend a hand. Communities of faith reached out to Muslims who lived in fear of retaliation. Busy people began to slow down and spend more time with their families and friends. Complacent people began to think deeply about the direction of their lives. We Americans began to speak less about our values and more about our commitments and our convictions. All of these represent opportunities grasped by a people both shaken by tragedy and determined to use their freedom to find some benefit in it.
The parable suggests that Jesus Christ does not call us to ruts or routines. It warns us that God does not allow oppressive power arrangements or comfortable injustices to remain intact. The Holy Spirit creates not only order but also chaos. But in that chaos, the chains slip away, and we have the freedom to take advantage of opportunities-opportunities to love, to do service, to do justice, to act heroically. What is needed in this world are more entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that God provides. Are you one of them?
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you call us to see in crisis the opportunity to serve. Open our hearts and minds to your calling. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.