Julian DeShazier October 22, 2017
Scripture Matthew 22:1–14
Every parent knows the sound of their child’s voice. I feel like it was in my mother’s DNA; I could yell “Mama!” from anywhere in the grocery store—no matter the size of the crowd—and she would know where to come. A child’s voice is like a homing signal, and it’s biological. At birth, the first language all animals and humans learn are called “begging calls.” Parents learn the frequency of their children’s pleas—for food, for warmth, for attention—in such a way that, even when they get older, the pitch is still programmed in the parent. Even 20 years later, from Morehouse, with an empty refrigerator and no money, I made “begging calls”: Mama, could you please send me $50? It was like an auction, in reverse: $40, $30, do I hear $20? It’s true, and as a father I’m beginning to understand. I even understand God more now that I am a parent. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing—when she calls, I hear her. In a crowd of billions, when we cry out, we are heard. Bring your prayers, your cries, your begging calls, in the presence of God.
Parents hear children, but it does not work the other way. Now, I can tell you as a child I would get lost in the store—don’t ask why I ran off; I had stuff to do—and my mother’s voice would sound like any other adult’s. I wouldn’t be found until she heard me. And then there are times you don’t want to hear her voice. Like when—as a hypothetical, you know—you were playing outside with your brother and, hypothetically, your backyard had a slope and (I’m making this up) it’s an unreasonably hot day, so let’s just say your brother thought we should take our plastic carpet runner from inside the house and bring it outside the house, run it down the slope of this meticulously manicured lawn, put the hose on the runner and turn our backyard into a Slip ’N Slide. Let’s just say, because it didn’t happen, but let’s just say it did, that you invited your friends over and, instead of a couple people, the entire block came and for a few moments—a few summer hours while your parents were at work—you and your brother turned your backyard into a water park. This is all hypothetical—Okay, we did this—and when we finished, a perfectly laid plan to begin at 12 p.m., to end at 3 p.m., to dry off the runner, to lay it back on the carpet, to roll up the hose and . . . Oh my God, we ruined the grass! We ruined the grass. There was a dark brown stripe of dead grass and mud.
Three p.m. turned to 4 p.m., and we tried, we really did try to . . . not to fix it but to not get caught . . . but 4 p.m. turned to 4:30 p.m., and my mother got home at 5:30 p.m., so at 5 p.m. we ran. We ran across the street to our neighbors’ house. They said: “You can’t stay here! She gon’ think we were part of this, even though we were. You’ve got to go somewhere else.” We run home, we go in the basement, we turn on the video games. Maybe she won’t notice. My mother comes home, sees us—another day, my children are alive—goes upstairs. She must have looked out the window at some point because all we heard was, “Who did this?!” Went from glad my children are alive to I’ma kill em. And all I could muster to say, in my panic, my fear, I said to my brother, I said to him, “She talking to you.” Unh-uhh, she talking to you! Go on upstairs. An example of times you don’t want to hear your parent’s voice.
This, too, is true of God. When we do wrong, we would rather run away. And sometimes we hear something hard—being scolded, a way we must change—and say, “She must be talking to you. He not talking to me.” You can imagine that moment with this scripture.
Who is Jesus talking to? Better: Who is Matthew talking to? What is this about? I wouldn’t ask this if we were reading the Luke version of this parable, or even the version found in the Gospel of Thomas. Those versions go like this: “Someone is looking to give a great dinner and invited many. When the time came he sent his slave to bring them but they all made excuses. So the master said, ‘Okay, bring in the poor, the blind, the lame.’ The master says, ‘None of those invited will taste my dinner.’” In other words: this is a story about open invitation. That the table is open to all because God said so, and that those with first access—the powerful, the privileged—have other things to do; it’s their busy-ness that will keep them from getting a “taste” of the kingdom. But this is passive language compared to Matthew, who raises the stakes in almost every way imaginable. In Matthew, it’s not “someone” but a king, and it’s not a dinner but a wedding feast. As commentator Ira Driggers has noted, nothing in those times was more important than a wedding feast. The honor of a wedding, of being invited, by the king, this right here—you moved things out of the way to go to that. This was one of those calendar-anchoring events.
But when the time came, nobody showed up. Nobody gives excuses; they just don’t show up. In fact, they make light of it and some kill the king’s people. Who is Jesus talking to here? Not the people too busy for God, but to the people actively acting against God by their greed, their callousness and their hatred. Of the people who are called first because they have much—the rich and powerful—and to whom much is given, much is required. But they would attack God’s people. The ones called “Doctor” and “Senator” and “Chief”; ones called “CEO”; and ones called “President.” Not the ones that deny the call but the ones that actively—in their formation of health-care policy, of immigration policy, of policing strategy; in their hoarding of riches, in their seizure of lands—the ones who would kill God’s people. Not the ones who don’t answer the door, but the ones that answer and manipulate. The people who think this is a game! Look how satisfied they are with their lot, and look how angry it makes you to watch them, to read them, to see them. Our rhetoric of anger is little more than free press, but what should we do? We can’t be quiet! What should we do?
The king in anger gave no mercy but distributed justice: Maybe it’s ours to move from anger to justice. I like that, that sounds nice, but how easily are violence and justice confused for one another! There are people mad at that man in Washington and if you got a chance to . . . ooooh . . . you are seething! And we like our violence, especially when we can call it just violence. But to say that we must move from anger to justice is also to say that we are the king in this story, and I don’t think we are. I think the point, if you stop there, is that “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” God will not reject anyone, and God will not forget those who abuse, those that steal and kill.
But keep going: The king says, “Those that were invited were not worthy.” Our value is intrinsic, inalienable, comes from God, but our worth comes from our heart and our actions, not our wealth. Some people worth a lot ain’t worth much at all, and they will show that by their response to God’s call to love, to feast, by the honor of being invited to work with God. But the wedding is ready. I love that it says that—not “the wedding is off,” but “the wedding is ready.” This work, this work of love and healing our community is not cancelled when those most able don’t show up. Sometimes we call on others to show up, and they should show up, and when they don’t, we say the work isn’t done because they didn’t do it. And you would be right—if Jesus would’ve stopped talking right there, you would be right. It’s their fault. It’s the President’s fault. It’s Congress’s fault. They didn’t show up! If the wedding was off, you’d be right. But the king says, “Invite everyone you can find, so that the hall was filled with people, good and bad.”
This thing has to happen—justice has to happen—love has to happen, and God sees in us, good and bad, that we can make this happen. When the powerful shirk responsibility, we have a responsibility. Even when you think you aren’t rich enough, connected enough, even when you think you aren’t good enough, you are still invited.
The invitation, for imperfect people to do work for a perfect God, is the greatest honor any of us can ever have bestowed. All of our work is a wedding. It is an honor to be asked to love, to protect, to provide sanctuary, to keep out of harm’s way, to rescue from the hand of the reaper. It is an honor, with my thoughts, with my imperfections, with my problems, to still know that my invitation has not been revoked, waiting for my response.
I’m the guy who stares at the invitation sitting on the counter for weeks; I’m the guy who, if you send an evite, viewed but did not respond. The letters RSVP are an acronym for a French phrase—Répondez s’il vous plaît—“Respond, if you please.” Would you please let me know? And anyone that has ever planned a wedding before knows the importance of the RSVP. Every plate costs money. Every chair, every drink—so that the difference of even 30 people can be a thousand dollars. One of the most annoying things in the world is someone who doesn’t answer an RSVP. (In other words, me.)
When it comes to this life, answer the call. Others didn’t, fine. But now you are being called. Answer the call to love. Answer the call to live as one in community. Answer the call to serve this community. Answer the call to ministry. Because you know this God is relentless; the invitation is never revoked. God won’t leave you alone. Stop fighting against, and let’s figure out how to work with the Spirit. The need is as great as ever. Let us align our lives as a Yes to God, a Yes to God’s people, a Yes to Black Lives Matter, a Yes to Ni Uno Mas (“Not One More”)—unjust deportation. Yes, I will show up for this. I will be a witness. Praise God for those who show up when the oppression is not their own . . . but even that is not the end of this parable.
The last thing in this parable: For weddings, you had a special garment you’d put on for the feast, called a wedding robe. It signaled that you took this seriously and that you weren’t just stopping by; you were here for this. It was a signal of focus and attention to the occasion; it was showing up prepared. The king sees the guest and says, “What are you doing here without a wedding robe?” It’s not enough to just show up. Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is showing up.” We’ve made it a mantra, a part of our social justice ethos. Show up to the march. Turn on NPR. Read this. Never watch that. Facebook activism. This parable is about the other 20 percent, where we get things done. Where we enter relationship with the people we say we care about. Where we risk ourselves. Where we risk our privilege, not as allies but as accomplices, right next to those suffering most. You can show up and still be distant; the wedding robe says, “I’m here to party.” I’m here to risk. I’m here to imitate Christ. God doesn’t need our presence; God is all-powerful and can be everywhere. God doesn’t need our presence. God needs our hands. It is no longer enough to show up. Show up, with a wedding robe.
Even privately, are we prepared to deal with the attitudes, anxieties, habits that are holding us back, keeping us from our fullest self, and wondering why our lives aren’t as full as they should be? Show up, ready to work. Some are content to just show up. We are not here for self-congratulations on how much we’ve evolved; how racist my parents were, but I’m not. We are here to move the needle. Show up with a wedding robe. Good or bad, God says, you are invited to be part of the work of love. We are invited to bring our flawed selves, to be part of what God is doing! The hard work of making relationship with the people we say we love? Many are called, few are chosen. Many show up, few bring the wedding robe. We are called to meet this moment, Plymouth, to use our faith and anger and heartbreak to rise to this occasion . . . to respond Yes to God, and Yes to God’s people. Show up, church, and bring your wedding robe!