I wonder what is the first thought that comes into your head when you open an invitation and find yourself invited to a wedding.
Do you say a wee prayer of thanksgiving for the couple?
Maybe you do.
Do you rejoice that two people have discovered that they love one another and give thanks for the places in your own life where you have known love too?
Maybe you do.
Or, upon reading that invitation, is the first thought that comes into your mind, “Oh no! What on earth am I going to wear?”
It is as though we have a global, cosmic, universal, catholic fear of being the man in the parable that I’ve just read – the one who was caught out at a wedding wearing the wrong clothes and thrown out into outer darkness where there is “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth”.
I’ve already preached on that phrase once this year. I really must learn my lesson and look up the readings before doing the clergy rota. This parable is so horrible that it is the kind of thing that should only be scheduled for a curate. Or maybe a passing bishop.
It’s not too bad for a while – the idea that at the great wedding banquet folk haven’t turned up and God sends for the riff raff to fill the spaces is something that I think we can relate to. I always used to want to be in charge of a church which welcomed the riff-raff of the world….well, you should be careful what you wish for!
It is that last nasty bit that sticks in my craw – the story of the person not being dressed for the wedding being flung out into the dark.
On everything connected with this congregation we put the words “Open, inclusive welcoming”. There is no dress code here. This is a place where you can come in from the highways and byways of the world and just be present with God. You won’t be flung out for not knowing the routine or not wearing the right robe. We even provide great big pillars for you to hide behind, for as long as you chose. And that’s OK here.
A parable with a story that ends like this pulls us up short. Can that really be in the gospel, we think. Can that really be what God is on about in the world today?
I want to suggest to you that the answer to that question might just be “no”. And I also want to bring this all up to date by talking in a moment about the big current question about marriage – after all – there are people who feel very much excluded by God or God’s representatives from the institution of marriage. This little parable might be all too contemporary.
I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, what on earth did it ever mean that allowed its hearers to hear it as Gospel.
Well, in a few week’s time we will turn the page and start to read Mark’s gospel on Sundays. We’ve been reading Matthew since last Advent. This parable is part of the stark black and white tone that Matthew strikes. The parable of the wedding feast that we have today is part of the old sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned stuff that permeates this gospel. I struggle with it every time we go through it. I’m not the only one who does. Though it has to be acknowledged as we read it that it makes perfect sense to many a religious community who need high barriers to entry and participation and who have a desperate need to see themselves as living in opposition to the ways of the world.
The most sense I can make of this parable is to go back to the theory that Matthew’s people were frightened people. The remnant of people who collected this parable were the ones trying to live as Christians without abandoning too much of their Jewishness. Issues of identity and probably dress were absolutely crucial to them.
I was reminded this week of seeing persecuted Christians in Egypt showing tattoos on their wrists to doorkeepers of churches in order to gain entry. They have crosses tattooed on themselves – something that Muslims would never ever do. These marks act as essential symbols of who they are and the faith they profess. You show a tattoo to gain entry – to prove who you are.
Matthew’s people may have had their own religious code – their own religious dress, their own tight religious world to preserve. In that context a parable about throwing someone out for wearing the wrong thing makes all kinds of sense, even if we may not like it now.
And coming back to now, what does it mean today?
Well, as I alluded today we would do well to remember that there are those amongst us (including me) who are cut off from the institution of marriage. Not quite thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but outside the fold of respectability. Gay folk can’t get married and the government are consulting about whether the time is right to change that. I think it is and it is a change that some of us from this church have been working towards for quite a while – quietly writing letters and gathering signatures and speaking to politicians.
I believe that religious people have as much right to influence politicians as anyone else. Heaven knows I try to do so often.
However, I think that there is a danger that the influence of goodhearted, godly people is being undermined by some within the Christian community.
It vexes me greatly to say so in public, but at such a time as this, there seems no alternative but to speak up. The behaviour of our brothers, the Roman Catholic Bishops in recent days, has been so unpleasant and so ill judged that it risks harming the good influence of the whole Christian community.
To behave as though bishops carry some kind of block vote to Holyrood, to threaten politicians and to decry those who want access to the dignity of marriage as unnatural…. to say these things seems to me to go too far.
Such comments from the leaders of the Roman Catholic church have left me feeling embarrassed as a Christian. There is a risk that all of the churches will appear to be out of touch, arrogant, conceited and rude. We don’t all have to agree but we are all called to behave charitably and there has been an absence of love in this relentlessly bitter campaign and it diminishes us all.
One of the great things about living in Glasgow is that you can find out fairly quickly that one’s Roman Catholic friends and neighbours don’t all share all the views of the hierarchy of that church. Indeed a good many share that sense of embarrasment.
I hope that you were embarrassed and outraged by the parable told in this morning’s gospel. If you were not – go and read it again until you are. It may well have made sense to the people amongst whom it was first told but we must be frank, we must be bold and we must be clear – it has very little in it to edify us now.
The words of Jesus to cling onto are the words which nourish and the words which heal. The stories that inspire, the sayings which embrace. Those ways of thinking which enfold the weary like that shepherd we sang about in the psalm – those are the elements of Gospel which the whole world craves.
As the apostle said, “So beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
And in the name of God, forget all the rest.