Sunday, 15 October 2023
Dr Esther Elliott
God didn't, and doesn't swerve the bad stuff. God faces into it.
Pentecost 20, Year A. Matthew 22:1-14. St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh
Well, I don’t suppose you came to church this morning expecting a shocker of a story like the one we just heard. I suspect many of us came hoping for some respite from stories of nasty, violent, murdering leaders. In case you didn’t realise, we don’t choose the readings, we have hitched ourselves to a schedule of appointed readings used by countless churches around the world. Sometimes, as today, that means that the readings earsplittingly echo what is going on in real time.
The opening line of the story didn’t sound too risky “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son”. But, my goodness, did it escalate quickly after that! The invites go out, some people ignore them, some mistreat and then kill the messengers. And in an act of revenge, an enraged world leader sends his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city. And then, while the city is burning, he invites more people to party among the ruins. And then, when one person turns up in what he deems the wrong clothes he has him killed as well. A horrible, horrible, evil tyrant of a man. Some people think this story is full of exaggeration to make a point. Any of us who have watched the situation in Israel and Gaza this week, with breaking hearts knows it’s realistic.
There is a traditional interpretation of this story which I need to quickly bring into the light and deal with. It reads this as a story of God, the King who sends out invitations to be part of what God is doing. It likens the first people to receive the invitations to Jews who have supposedly ignored God and gone on to kill God’s messengers. This leaves room for another round of invitations which are accepted by people likened to Christians. It is an anti-semitic interpretation of the Bible of which, I think, we need to repent. And we certainly don’t need to go anywhere near it that this week, thank you. Being careful with words is evermore important, especially in times of conflict and anxiety. And the thing about stories, particularly ones told by great storytellers like Jesus is that they are meant to be flexible, for our understanding of them to change and for us to see something different in them each time they are told. So here is a different take on this story.
This story is just plain bleak. Starkly bleak. There’s no messiah figure, no saviour. Jesus doesn’t comment on the story. He doesn’t whisper off to the side “don’t worry, I’ll get the murderers in the end” or “obviously, I don’t mean you, you are so chosen!”. There’s no get out clause. Even the last comment, many are called, but few are chosen is sinister. Just like real life at the moment this story basically is in our face with wickedness and evil and asking of us, just how much of this can you take?
But here it is, in scripture. Evil is contained in the holy. Today, alongside all our joys and our hopes we too have spoken and heard this story of evil and contained it within the holy bricks of this building and the holy parts of our lives together. We haven’t swerved it, we haven’t switched over from it. We’ve taken it in, started to understand it, perhaps in part to accept it. We’ve faced into it. And I think that’s a way of understanding this this story if we let it breathe a bit.
God didn’t, and doesn’t swerve the bad stuff, God faces into it. God’s child, Jesus, in His lifetime stood alongside the persecuted and the marginalised in society and was put to a very nasty death because of that. God knows what it is to suffer and be killed at the hands of the powerful and the evil and the tyrants. The place where God is in charge, God’s Kin-dom says this story, is a place where the worst humanity can do to each other is believed and known.
After the Second World War as people tried to face into the horror of the holocaust there was, quite rightly, a very real crisis within groups of people of faith. Where was God then in all of that? People in other parts of the world who had been through similar situations knew something of an answer. God was there, right there, among the suffering and the killing, standing with people as they were rounded up, confined, and concentrated into small spaces and murdered. God was there, right there with people in absolute fear, families torn apart, people whose hearts were breaking with grief. There was a German theologian called Jurgen Moltmann. Towards the end of the war he had surrendered and become a Prisoner of War. As news of the holocaust came out he tried to come to terms with the awful burden of what people from his own country had done and he learnt from these other people around the world. He eventually wrote a book called The Crucified God. It’s a title that sums up what I am trying to say.
I long for the next generation, for Emily and Duncan to grow up in a world where there is peace and stability, where they don’t have to listen to and watch the things our grandparents saw and heard in the world wars and the things we have seen and heard from Israel and Gaza this week. Of course I do and I, we, here will pray for that every single day without fail. While I long for that I can also be realistic and say to them here is something to hold on to in whatever violence, evil and tyranny you might face. God is right there. The God of your ancestors stood alongside the marginalised, the persecuted, the people others called animals, the people killed in the name of territory or ideology or religion. Stood right there. And God will do that again, and again, and again, because it is God’s nature to stand in solidarity with the terrified and the oppressed.
There are some characters in this story who, I think, portray people who know that’s what God is like. They are people who resist the terms of the tyrant leader. They say no and refuse to join in with the plans of this powerful king. They turn down the special invitations. There is one person who joins in, but on their own terms, comfortable in their own identity, not giving in to being told what to wear or how to look. Knowing what evil they are facing they do this anyway. The personal cost is great. Huge.
This to me is what it means to be a Christian. It means to refuse the invitation to be party to, party with, and be in the same party as violence of any sort that maims and kills. It means to resist being led to leaving some people out. It means to find ways, sometimes at personal cost, of making sure everyone on earth gets the opportunity to eat their fill, to celebrate life and love and dance with the sheer joy of being alive. It means to turn up comfortable as you are, wonderfully, gloriously made in the image of God whatever your identity is based on. It means to be comfortable with other people turning up as they are, wonderfully and gloriously made in the image of God as well. It means to know that evil and the hell we make for each other and sometimes for ourselves are not the greatest things in the world. For we have known hell and we have known love. And we know that the love of the Crucified God is bigger.
There’s no time like the present. Here today are our own acts of resisting evil. In the face of the violence and the inhumanity that’s so close at hand we will celebrate with joy and laughter the lives of two children and all the good that their futures will hold. We will have our own banquet, symbolic yes, but nevertheless, a feast where every single human being is welcome. This of all weeks lets come and stand together, in memory of the Crucified God and eat and drink together in solidarity with each other. We will celebrate and feast together as a way of saying we are all, every single human being, every one of us, loved beyond measure by God.