Was there ever a moment in church when you were listening to a lesson being read and about halfway through it you suddenly wished you could call a time out, say to the reader, "Stop! Hold on! Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Back up and start that story again. I need to hear that again. Something didn't quite sound right to me."
Well, that's happened to me more than once, and, in fact, it's happened to me when I've heard this story. There have been moments in listening to this story from the 22nd chapter of Matthew that I have wanted to simply stop, call a time out, and ask myself what is really going on here. The reason I say that is because the story sounds like something that I could guess the ending of. It's the kind of story where you think, "Oh, I know where this is going. This sounds good. I understand the point." But then halfway through it, it suddenly changes on you.
Think about it carefully with me for just a moment. This is a parable Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven, and as he often does, he uses a symbol-the symbol of the wedding banquet. This is the symbol for the kingdom of heaven, and the king, of course, fills in for the role of God. And in his parable, his symbolic story, he tells us that there was a king who wanted to give this wonderful banquet, and he invited guests. But the guests acted in an awful way toward him, saying they weren't concerned at all about coming. And, in fact, when he tried to invite them a second time, they not only were rude and abusive to him, they even became violent and killed the messengers that he sent. Well, the king then says then they must be thrown out and they are destroyed. And he sends his attendants out, and they call in a new set of wedding guests from the highways and byways, people both good and bad as the scripture story says, and they all get to come to the banquet instead.
Well, on the surface, the story should stop right there; and it would make perfect sense to us. Those that were asked did not come, and they got their just desserts, and those who were suddenly invited, who didn't expect to come, and they were brought in by a loving God. Everything sounds so wonderful, but then you get to verse 11 and the story starts to change. It gets strange because when the king comes in and sees the guests, he notices a single man who stands out because he's not wearing formal attire. And he has this man, who when confronted and asked, "Why aren't you wearing a wedding gown?" doesn't really know what to say, and is suddenly bound hand and foot and cast out into utter darkness. What an odd, odd turn of events! What does that mean? Time out! I want to understand it. What is really going on here? It sounds so out of place. Was it because this poor man invited in couldn't afford better clothes that a vengeful, vindictive God would cast him into darkness?
Theologians and scholars can spend a great deal of time explaining all of this to us, but today, for my own sake, I'm simply going to sit here with you in an ambivalent moment in our reading and understanding of the Gospel. I'm simply going to call a time out and see if together we can understand what might really be happening in this strange story.
And I believe I have a clue. What is happening is that we are dealing here with a powerful symbol. The wedding gown is a symbol that has been lost to us. It meant something to the readers and to the listeners of the time of Jesus who knew that a wedding gown implied the hospitality that was being extended and the respect and recognition that was due in return. That's been lost to us in our culture, where we are so informal that the idea of showing up without having the proper attire would not necessarily mean a one-way ticket to damnation. That symbol has been lost, but it's been lost in a story filled with symbols. The wedding banquet, as we said, is a symbol. The king is a symbol. Parables are symbols. What we are dealing with here that seems to confuse us so much is our own confrontation with a symbol that we don't understand and that is the point.
Think about it in this way: Why in the church do we have to spend so much time talking about the kind of language that we use in worship? Why do we have to spend time considering whether we use inclusive language that encircles people of both genders? Why are we worried about the kinds of stories that we tell in our Sunday schools? Why is it that we want to be focused on what we call multicultural issues within the life of the church making sure that how we pray and how we sing and how we worship make sense to everybody in the room? Why? Is it simply to be politically correct?
No. It's because of the power of symbols. The way that we sing our hymns, the way that we word our prayers, the way that we worship together is filled with symbolic language. And the power of a symbol is to identify who's in and who's out, who understands the symbol and therefore is a part of the story, and who doesn't understand what's going on here-and, because they don't understand, suddenly feels an outcast?
We have to spend time watching our language, watching our story, to make sure that our use of symbols does not leave other men and women sitting there scratching their heads and saying, "Wait a minute! Time out! Do I really belong here or not? I don't know what you're saying." And perhaps like the man at that wedding banquet, to be found innocently speechless, wondering what have I done, why can I not be a part of this banquet with the rest of you, and feel as though, for no good reason, they have been cast into utter darkness all because of a symbol that they could not comprehend - that there is no symbol except the sign of your cross to welcome them into the fellowship that we share together in your blessed name. Amen.