A Sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter
October 10, 2020
Last year – in September, 2019 – I preached a sermon I titled, “The Worst Parable Ever.” It was The Parable of the Shrewd (or, Crooked) Manager from Luke’s gospel.
I was wrong. That was not the worst parable ever. It was only one of the worst parables ever.
Actually, THIS is the worst parable ever. This one right here: Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Banquet. (Matthew 22:1-14)
If you wrestle with this parable through the night, I can assure you that you’ll wake up in the morning limping, just like Jacob who wrestled with the angel. You may even have a headache from banging your head against the rock that was your pillow.
Seriously. Well, I tried to warn you two weeks ago about the upcoming gospels from here to the Feast of Christ the King just six weeks from now.
Unfortunately, our minds are on the pandemic and whether the COVID will rob us of a full NFL season, and, perhaps, how to celebrate a safely distanced Oktoberfest, or whether or not Halloween masks this year will provide adequate prevention from COVID transmission and infection.
Oh, and then there’s the matter of the presidential election. Indeed.
So, who wants to wrestle with a contentious piece of scripture while we have so many other things over which to gnash our teeth and rend our garments and growl?
The temptation, of course, is to take this scripture literally. I love the saying about us, that Episcopalians “take scripture too seriously to take it literally”. That posture really saves us, especially in this parable, from dangerous conclusions that defy the image of God as a God of unconditional love, a God who is capable of a change of mind as well as heart, which we saw in the first lesson from Genesis.
I am assured by my Lutheran friends that Martin Luther did not like preaching on this parable. As Paul writes to the church in Philippi, how are we supposed to “rejoice in the Lord” who throws uninvited guests into the outer darkness?
The great theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin and others of his orthodox Protestant theological persuasion, have preached that the one ejected from the banquet represented the one who did not "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14 and Gal. 3:27).
Calvin preached that we are all invited to the kingdom, but we are all under obligation to be clothed with Christ and to live lives of righteousness.
Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean that the message of this parable is that only practicing Christians are saved—everybody else is toast.
I simply don’t believe that people like Gandhi aren’t in heaven right alongside Mother Theresa. Or that faithful Jew, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is still not respectfully dissenting from the opinions of devout Roman Catholic Antonin Scalia. Or that Jesus and Buddha, Mohammed and Brahma don’t walk and talk and discuss theology together on the same path in the Celestial City.
Lutheran pastor, Mary Anderson reinterprets this parable with a modern one of her own – which, as you know, are my favorite kinds of parable.
Imagine that an active member in a congregation has just heard a sermon on that gospel from an orthodox follower of Calvin theology – that the only ones going to heaven are devout Christians. She has tears in her eyes. She hears the judgment loud and clear.
Her son-in-law is a self-proclaimed atheist and her granddaughter is unbaptized at age six. She has a wonderful neighbor who is Jewish; her longtime doctor is the best listener in the world—and a practicing Hindu.
It turns out that she loves a lot of people who are going to hell. How can she be happy in heaven without them? She was told once that heaven will be so incredible that she won't miss these people, but she can't imagine rejoicing in the Lord under these conditions. She can't imagine her sweet grandchild in hell.
But the grandmother has accepted the invitation; she's put on Christ and considers herself clothed with righteousness. She has recommitted herself on many occasions to imitating Christ. So what would Jesus do, she wonders.
The congregation rises to sing a hymn rejoicing in salvation, and worshipers dutifully recite the Apostles' Creed. The grandmother's voice catches on the words of faith, "he descended into hell." She's never had a satisfactory explanation of what Jesus was doing in hell between his death and resurrection.
For her at that moment, after suffering through a sermon that sent her loved ones to outer darkness, she knew what the creed meant for her. Before he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to retrieve those who had not heard the gospel through no fault of their own. Jesus went to get those cast into outer darkness and bring them into the kingdom with him.
If she was clothed with Christ, she reasoned, she was called to be like him.
By the time of the final hymn she decided that to really be like Christ, she would pass up heaven in order to comfort her grandbaby in hell. She would offer her eternal life for her grandchild's eternal life.
She would descend into hell as Jesus did. She left church convinced that day that if we truly live a transformed life, we can't stand by and feast while others starve and burn. That just isn't the Jesus way!
Now, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I don’t know the right interpretation of this Gospel parable – much less if this woman (let’s give her a name – let’s call her Ethel – got it right – but I do love what happened to the woman in this modern parable.
Let me explain: When I was in seminary, studying scripture with the Jesuits, one of my favorite professors was Dan Harrington.
He was an absolutely brilliant theologian and wonderful pastor but, honestly? What I love most about him? Well, he looked and talked like a truck driver. And yet, he had more scholarly articles published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary than any other professor at Weston School of Theology at the time.
He was a big, burly Irishman whose face was covered in fading freckles, and the hair on his head had that wonderful tone Irish-red becomes after it turns grey. He had a thick Irish-Bawston lilt which made the occasional pearls of wisdom he would drop even more memorable.
I’ll never forget his advice: Parables work best, he said, when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us.
Just let that sink in for a moment: Parables work best when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us.
Ethel, the woman in that story took the parable not literally but seriously (I suspect she may have been an Episcopalian). She took it as a challenge to take seriously her clothing in Christ.
Indeed, Ethel took it so seriously that she was transformed from one who understood herself as saved and going to heaven to one who gave up heaven in order to save and protect those she loved.
Isn't this what Jesus did and what Jesus would do?
The parable interpreted her life.
I don’t know about you, but when I grow up I want to be more like Ethel.
Like Ethel, I want to take even the worst of the parables, no matter how grumpy and frustrated or conflicted or sad they make me feel or whether or not they come at a particularly bad season of the year, and have them better interpret my life.
I suspect if more of us took scripture less literally and more seriously, we may find ourselves leaving worship, perhaps with a slight limp but still rejoicing in the transformative power of Christ to work through our worst parts of our stories to bring us closer to walk the path of the teachings of Christ.
May we all be less interested in changing God’s mind and more deeply committed to following the Spirit and changing our lives in Christ.
Then we might be able to join St. Paul whose hymn of praise still sings to us throughout time and space: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,Rejoice.