We’ve all had that dream. You know the one. It’s actually known in some psychological circles as “The Dream.” The one where you are back in school, sitting in a classroom for a class. And there is a test today and you haven’t studied. You haven’t studied because you haven’t gone to class all semester. You have a vague recollection of having signed up for it but somehow now it’s finals and here you are completely unprepared.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 5 of the series “St. Matthew Wants You to Know“
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
October 11, 2020
Exodus 32:1–14; Matthew 22:1–14
These dreams are no doubt an expression of some kind of anxiety and there are several competing hypotheses for why these dreams are taking place:1https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/radical-teaching/200909/recurring-final-exam-dream
- The dream often occurs in approximation with having forgotten or being concerned about forgetting to do something important in waking life.
- The dream may reflect a sense of responsibility, duty, or choice where the dreamer knows what he should do, but is hesitant or reluctant to do the act.
- A change involving the end of something is imminent and there is low confidence about the future.
- It is a time when regrets of past actions or inactions have been in mind—a possible prompt to not “put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”
- The dream, when it comes in approximation with a significant date, such as a birthday, anniversary, school reunion year, date of the death of someone significant, offers the doorway to the classroom as a metaphor to paths not taken, the recognition that a “long” time has passed without goals achieved.
- The dream is a reminder not to miss an opportunity or take a more active role in one’s destiny.
But all of these anxieties have been with us for ages; systems of secondary and higher education have not.
So, what did ancient people dream about when they were feeling anxious about a change, or regretting an action in the past, or hoping not to miss an opportunity?
Perhaps they dreamed about showing up to a wedding banquet and not being properly dressed for the occasion. Because I’ve got to tell you, the scenario in this morning’s gospel lesson we’re presented with has something of that disturbing dream quality to it.
In the lesson from Matthew’s gospel, we hear the story of a wedding banquet that a king prepared for his son. The king sent out invitations but the invited guests did not seem interested. He sent out more servants to bring them in:
Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.Matthew 22:4–6
Enraged the king sends his troops, who killed the murderers and destroyed their city. But then, realizing he still has a wedding feast to hold, orders his slaves into the streets and invite everyone they could find, both good and bad. So, the servants do this.
But then the story takes a surprising turn:
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”Matthew 22:11–14
Just so we’re getting this straight: a guest who had only just been invited into the wedding off of the street was found to be unprepared to go to a wedding, lacked the proper wedding robe, and as a result is kicked out of the wedding and cast into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Sounds fair.
But think about this: why would this guy happen to have a wedding robe on him? Should this man have just been carrying around a wedding robe with him on his errands through the city of the off chance that the King would invite him to his son’s wedding? I mean, there’s preparedness and then there’s preparedness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep a tuxedo in the trunk of my car on the off chance that the next time I’m downtown I get invited to a state dinner.
So, what on earth is going on here?
BEING READY FOR ANYTHING
Well, when I was in seminary and in the years after I was greatly influenced by my New Testament professor who would say of the key to any New Testament text: “It’s the eschatology, stupid.” Well, he may never have actually said that, but I like to remember him as having done so, because his main hermeneutic —his main interpretive lens—is eschatology.
Eschatology means “discourse on the end,” that is, attitudes and beliefs about the end of history and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. There are different eschatologies in the New Testament, with some authors believing that the Kingdom of God has already arrived in spiritual form (e.g., the Gospel of John), and those that believe that the Kingdom of God has not yet arrived (the Synoptic Gospels, Revelation, etc.), and some who believe it’s kind of here for some things and on the way for others (the authentic letters of Paul).
The eschatology of Matthew’s gospel is that the Kingdom of God is not here yet, but it is on its way. And soon.
There is an urgency to the eschatology of Matthew’s gospel that is found in a number of the parables in that gospel: admonitions to be ready, to be prepared, to be watchful, to keep awake, to be about the work when the master returns.
And we see something of that in this parable.
The wedding banquet is the Kingdom of God. The invitations have long been sent out and people put on notice. But when the feast is finally prepared, most people ignore it or are indifferent. Some even respond with violence to the proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom. In punishment for this, their city is destroyed. This is likely a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Romans in AD 70, seen by many Christians as divine punishment for the leadership having rejected Jesus.
But then the door is opened to the disreputable—to the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the sinners. The guests go out into the streets and roads to bring people in. Those who are brought in in this second wave are still subject to judgment. The wedding guest brought in off of the street without a wedding robe represents the individual who is not sufficiently prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God. In the understanding of the parable, everyone has been put on notice.
Saint Matthew wants you to be ready for anything because the Kingdom of God is at hand and could be here at any moment. Be ready! Have your wedding robes on standby!
Be ready for anything! But, how is that possible? How is this a meaningful life lesson?
PREPAREDNESS IN FAITH
This question is complicated by the fact that we don’t perceive the world in the same way that St. Matthew’s community did in the first century.
The earliest Christians believed that the Kingdom of God was imminent. Paul certainly thought so. In one place he writes, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51), and elsewhere, “Then we who are alive [when Jesus comes]…” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). I’ve always believed that Paul believed he’d be one of the we who are alive.
Over the course of the four gospels, you can see a little movement toward a belief that the Kingdom of God was a spiritual reality that was already here. Certainly, by the time of the writing of John’s gospel, this is the case. Perhaps the church got tired of waiting and it made more sense to believe the Kingdom had already arrived in some spiritual sense.
But by the second century, it was becoming clear that the Kingdom of God wasn’t coming right away and might not come for a very long time.
We, here, on the other end of nearly 2,000 years of waiting, have gotten comfortable with the delay. Oh sure, every once in a while, some catastrophe will come along, or the calendar will approach a round number, or somebody will start declaring that they’ve calculated the dates from scripture and there will be a brief End Times fervor. But it usually goes away and we go back to our indefinite waiting. Without any sense of urgency at all. And certainly not a high degree of readiness.
How is it possible to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom when we don’t know what’s going to happen or when? Are we supposed to be on high alert forever?
How do you live your life not certain about whether the Kingdom will arrive that day?
The reality is: this is how we live every single day of our lives. We just don’t admit it.
Every day you wake up could be your last. We don’t like to think that way, but it’s true. Every day we might find ourselves in a situation that changes our work life, our home life, our community life. People go to work not realizing that today is the day they get fired. Or the day that their old college friend offers them a new job they’d never considered but would be a fool to pass up.
Or you might wake up and realize you’re not happy in your work, your relationships. Or you discover a new passion—or rediscover an old passion long discovered.
You might get a letter or a phone call that changes your life—for good or for ill—in surprising and unexpected ways.
People get into fights with friends and loved ones that leave relationships strained that seemed so solid and unchallenged just days earlier. People receive diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses that upend people’s plans and finances.
People make plans to have a summer wedding only to have a world-upending once-in-a-century pandemic show up and ruin everything. Graduations are canceled, incoming students take a gap year they hadn’t expected to. New jobs suddenly evaporate because of the recession and lives that had seemed on one track are now on a very different one.
The lie we tell ourselves is that disruptions like the pandemic are unusual. Or that getting randomly invited to a wedding is surprising. But the reality is that we all live in an uncertain world where sudden and unexpected change can come upon us in an instant, upending our lives and disrupting our plans. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s true.
Perhaps the reason we don’t admit it to ourselves is that the illusion of certainty is so much more comforting.
We’re hard-wired to want that certainty. Certainty and predictability mean survival. It’s helpful to know that certain foods are always safe to eat. That particular areas are predator-free. We crave stability, safety, and security.
Even our aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by our desire for certainty. When children from around the world are shown pictures of different kinds of landscapes and asked which ones they like the best, they demonstrate a strong preference for savannas with trees. Not only is this perhaps harkening back to the environment in East Africa out of which humanity emerged, but it happens to be an environment in which there is available water, open sightlines to spot predators and enemies, trees to climb for safety, and in which hanging fruit might be found. Game animals are bound to be nearby. In short, we like such vistas because they appear to us safe and predictable.
Responding with Faith
Try as we might, we can never really find the certainty, the stability, and the security that we seek. We know this on some level—it’s why we cling to our dogmas, our worldview, and our other idols of certainty, no less than the Israelites clung to their idols in the wilderness on their way to freedom.
But there is another way.
We might not be able to live certainly, but we can live faithfully.
That means living into a reality we cannot be certain of but which we hope for. We live into the Kingdom of God, regardless of whether it arrives soon or not.
Jesus has taught us what that Kingdom will be like: it will be defined by mercy, justice, forgiveness, love, peace, and hope. When will it arrive? We don’t know.
But we can live lives of mercy, justice, forgiveness, love, peace, and hope now. We’ll have been living out the Kingdom in our daily lives. We’ll have been ready to come into the banquet. We’ll have been wearing that wedding robe—one that we can put on now—so that when the invitation is received, we’ll be ready.
It’s an easy thing to get complacent. Especially when waiting for an End of History that has been on backorder for nearly twenty centuries.
But Saint Matthew wants us to be ready for anything because, in our preparedness for the coming Kingdom of God, we live out true Christian discipleship. In living out the Kingdom ethics in the here and now we become witnesses to what that Kingdom will be like. We testify with our very lives to the banquet that awaits us and all the creation.
Exodus 32:1–14 • When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Matthew 22:1–14 • Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”