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Proper 23, Yr A, Tr 2, 21 after Trinity, 12/10/08
St Mark’s, Londonderry
Isa 25.1-9
Ps23
Phil 4.1-9
Matt 22.1-14: wedding feast, guests compelled in from everywhere, one tossed out for not
having a wedding garment (1381 words)


               
Nearly fifty years ago when I was the vicar of St John’s , Lockport , about thirty miles south of Chicago , our local Roman Catholic parish had a curate about my age named Norm Petz. He often came and spent an evening with Dorothy and me. He told us how he had looked each member of his youth group in the eye and had then placed the youngsters into two groups on opposite sides of the room. When he had finished, he said to all those on one side, “You don’t want to have anything to do with those on the other side of the room if you can help it.” When the youngsters protested, he said, “Ah. But you have blue eyes, and they don’t!”
            If today’s gospel had ended with a man tossed out because he did not have blue eyes, we would have been shocked, but it would have been a clear case of irrational prejudice. But as it is, perhaps we are simply puzzled.
            Why is this guest thrown out for not having a wedding garment? I would suggest to you that it is because, more than our other gospel writers, Matthew is the evangelist of what we might call ‘Tough Love’.
            Matthew, on the one hand, is the only writer in the New Testament to quote Hosea 6.6: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, and he does it twice, both times on Jesus’ lips.
He is also the evangelist who has the parable of the wheat and the tares in which the tares are allowed to grow alongside the good wheat until the harvest, but are then separated out and burned up. So for the time being Matthew’s community is not to be a puritan one, but woe-betide those who do not shape up in the end.
            Both Matthew (18.15) and Luke (17.3) speak of forgiving one’s brother who repents seven times, in Semitic terms that means with no limit. But Matthew spells it out further in a concerned pastoral fashion. First, go to your brother in private; if he repents, you have won your brother; if not, go again with two or three witnesses. Then if he does not repent, bring him up before the whole assembly. If he still won’t repent, then, and only then, he is to be cast out.
            Matthew, who presents Jesus as a teacher, ends each section of teaching with a note ofjudgement, such as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, in which the unready foolish virgins are left shut out from the wedding feast.
            So, to put Matthew’s viewpoint simply, grace is free, but it is not cheap. It isn’t enough to say, ‘Lord, Lord’. One must respond to the call of the kingdom. Ultimately, there will be no freeloaders. In the end we shall all be called to wear wedding garments. But the fabric of those garments will be our having shown love for others.
            Luke (14.16-24) has another version of the same story, but it has a much softer tone to it. In Luke’s version the invited guests simply beg off with lame excuses. The host then tells his servants to bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. And Luke’s version has no one excluded for lack of a wedding garment.
            So, who is in and who is out? Are we to draw a line, and if so, where and on what basis is that line to be drawn? Certainly on something much more serious than the lack of blue eyes.
            We have just had the Lambeth Conference where some 700 bishops and their spouses gathered at the invitation of the
 
Archbishop of Canterbury. But 300 bishops, including Dr Nazir Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, refused to come and met at a separate meeting in Jerusalem known by the acronym GAFCON, which stands for Global Anglican Future Conference, GAFCON. They were not to be tainted by association with bishops from North America who had given assent to the consecration of Gene Robinson as the duly elected Bishop of New Hampshire, who is living in a faithful, committed relationship with another man.  In this country we have Dr Jeffrey John who lives in a celibate relationship with his male partner, who is another priest. His appointment as the Bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford was so vehemently opposed by certain Conservative Evangelicals that the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded him to withdraw. And now the furore in the same quarters has arisen again as Dr John’s name has been suggested for a bishopric in the Church in Wales .
            We already have a split within the Church of England over the ordaining of women as priests and the prospect of their becoming bishops.
            Why all the hoorah? As I see it, there are three issues here, which we may call scripture, tradition, and culture, with perhaps culture being ultimately the most significant.
            For example, today no one would argue for slavery, but before the rise of the abolition movement, among the Jesuits the moral issue was whether or not a pocket mirror was an adequate price to pay for a black slave.
            When I was a child on the few occasions when I was spanked, my father did it with his leather razor strop and my mother with the back of her hair brush. With our own children I only used my open hand with a strictly limited number of blows, and now our children never spank. Our culture has changed and is changing..
            We are still in the process of coming out of a strongly male-orientated culture. And that in turn, I believe, has an influence on those clergy who cannot recognize the adequacy of women who have been ordained priest or the sacramental acts of those bishops who have ordained them.
            They appeal to history and tradition as precluding the possibility of women
really being ordained.
            And then there is the question of scripture. The first letter to Timothy, written in Paul’s name, says “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” (2.12). And if one ignores the last 200 years of biblical scholarship, then that settles the issue. But scholarship has shown (1) that Paul did not write the letter, and (2) that this was a backlash against the earlier equality in the Christian community of men and women, as evidenced by Paul in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is no longer male nor female (3.28). And part of that backlash included the inserting into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians the passage about women keeping quiet in church and asking their husbands at home if they have any questions.
            Another aspect about culture is that in many non-western cultures the question of homosexuality is taboo. It cannot even be discussed, and therefore the only biblical passages that speak against homosexual relationships, namely in Leviticus (18.22; 20.13) and Romans (1.27), are taken as settling the issue once and for all. But again, modern biblical scholarship has caused into question such a simplistic approach.
            Thus to use these arguments for refusing to have anything to do with those Anglicans who see things differently, is, in every way a backwards looking step. And that is precisely what those who are behind GAFCON have done. Their minds are made up. And they have even stated openly that they are the ones who will authenticate as true and proper Anglicans only those who meet their standards.
            In the gospel of Mark Jesus’ arguments with the Jewish authorities are precisely over the boundaries of the community. The authorities want to know whom can they keep out, whom can they kick out and whom can they make to be just like themselves. And each time Jesus’ answer is: ‘No one’.
            Our reading from Isaiah has spoken of a feast for all peoples, including the poor and needy. Our reading from Philippians has spoken of Euodia and Syntyche as being Paul’s co-workers.
            So I leave this question with you. What kind of church do we want to build here at St Mark’s, in the diocese, in England and the world, that we think Jesus would recognise as being true in our day to his life and teaching?