Sermon – 9 October 2005

This morning?s gospel reading is one of the most difficult to hear, especially for Scottish Episcopalians. The story of everyone from the streets being invited to the party is all well and good, but it offends our ears rather to hear of someone being thrown out for not wearing the right frock.

I say that it is hard for Scottish Episcopalians to hear this gospel reading. Why? Why should it be particularly difficult for us rather than anyone else?
Well, if you gather people from our congregations together and ask them what it is that is distinctive about our church, one theme always comes to the fore ? that we are pleased to be in a church which offers an open hearted welcome. I?ve been at several big conferences where we have been asked to define the Scottish Episcopal Church and again and again this dominant theme of being a welcoming church comes up.

I have a theory about this ? I?ve never been convinced that the SEC is a particularly welcoming church. What I think is going on is that as a church we find it quite easy to welcome people who for one reason or another don?t really fit somewhere else. So, I think that when we all say that the church is a church which is welcoming, what we are really saying is that it is a church which has welcomed me?and in other circumstances I might be rather hard to be welcomed.

Anyway, with this idea of welcome around, it is certainly easy for us to affirm the bit of the gospel story which was about sending out for people from the streets and bringing them in. But what are we to make of the last bit?

Well, there are a couple of possibilities. One which has had some currency in Scotland is to see this as being all about a finger-wagging God. You know, the God who says, ?Aha, you think you are really something but I know better. Ha ha. You think you are saved, but I know otherwise. Ho ho! Many are called, but few are chosen?.

That idea of a God who fools people into thinking they are chosen only to cast them into the darkness after all had some currency in Calvinist Scotland. If you want to find such spirituality, it is still around. There are plenty of churches that still preach it. If you want it, go and find it. But I don?t believe it. Not a word of it.

This is a more subtle gospel ? which it is hard to interpret in any terms, but I?ll never be happy with that. A finger-wagging God is a God not worth believing in.

It is important to note that there are a number of problems for us in knowing where God is in this story. Is God really the king in this one? You might like to mull that over. Or is God the one who was cast out at the end?

Traditionally, the king is God. But here is a king who behaves like a military tyrant who cannot be appeased by anything. No-one is worthy ? not the original guests nor the one brought in from the street. A crackpot God? No thanks, that is another one not worth believing in.

I find it harder to sympathise with a God who knows what it is to be broken and rejected and himself cast out. A God who knows what it is like to be picked on and who hurts just like us. Well, that is a God whom I think I know. Could it be that this parable needs turning on its head in order to turn what we think upside down too?

Maybe, but I?m still not sure. That is a God worth believing in, but I?m not 100% convinced that this is what this is about.

Some background information might be helpful. Firstly to say that it is most unlikely that these are the actual words of Jesus. One possibility for this kind of thing is that there was originally a memory of something which Jesus said which has been mangled by the early churches as they wrote down their stories and compiled them into gospels.

I?d like to think that I knew the kind of story that Jesus originally told. I imagine him coming in at the end of this story and waving an arm in a derisory way at the tyrant and saying, ?To hell (literally) with that way of being ? let the man stay and throw open the doors?.

Was that his original story? Maybe ? he told others like it. We certainly have the memories of St Matthew?s Church to deal with as we read his gospel.

The people who gathered around Matthew the compiler of this gospel were people who knew all about being rejected and that might colour their retelling of this story. They were living at the limits of the empire ? cut off from other Christians and keeping the faith (or making it up) as they went along. They were not at the centre of things. They felt rejected. They were out on a limb. Not only were they out of it because they were Christians but they were also a community which hung on to its Jewish roots for longer than other Christians did. This story may be their way of speaking of a conflict in the early church ? the one who gets thrown out may be someone who was not wearing the right opinions or not keeping the right orthodox precepts as the community were. It may be that they are using one of Jesus?s stories to keep others out, censoring the gospel to suit their own purposes.

This is not as outrageous as it seems ? people have always used scripture like that, after all. We all know the usual list of people whom Christians have rejected as not fitting in by turning the scriptures to their own ends ? divorced people, black people, gay people, women people?Lots of people have been on the sharp end of the misuse of scripture.

If anything, this gospel is a warning to us to use our own judgement and to read scripture well aware that we might be tempted to use it to our own ends.

Given the choice, I want to be a part of a church that includes people in and doesn?t include them out.

Notwithstanding the memories of Matthew?s people, I think I know a Saviour who does just that.

I hope so, anyway.

And that is a hope (and a God) worth believing in after all.


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