The Fires of Justice

(Posted by Andrew Krinks)

A sermon delivered at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Wednesday, October 15, 2014.

Lectionary Reading

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, maltreated 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.’

* * *

Let us pray.

Life-giver, death-dismantler, how long will death prevail? We are weary. Weary of white hands strangling black lives. Weary of bloodstained pavement. Weary of concrete cages. We are weary of the quick death. Weary of the slow death. How long, O Lord, will Death prevail? How long will we let it linger? How long, O God, until moth and rust destroy razor wire and concrete walls? How long, O Redeemer, until the waters of justice crush the temples of living death on Cockrill Bend Boulevard? How long until the ever-flowing stream washes away the squad cars and munitions in Ferguson, in Brooklyn, in Nashville? How long, O Liberator, until the captives find release? Or is this outer darkness, O Lord, this weeping and gnashing of teeth, our lot? Hear our cry. Come quickly. Amen.

* * *

Our gospel passage this week is one that most of us—if we’re honest—would probably rather leave alone. I confess, when I agreed back in August to deliver our sermon this week, I turned to the lectionary to see what the gospel reading was, and as quickly as I saw “The Parable of the Wedding Banquet,” I moved on, crossing my fingers for a good Old Testament text. And it is a good one! The first fourteen verses of Exodus 32: God’s people, weary, tired, looking at their watches, waiting on Moses to come down from the mountain already, finally lose their patience for the whole thing. So they gather their jewelry, they put it to the flame, and they make their own god: a golden calf, a god far more manageable than this elusive “I am who I am” character, this unpronounceable One who liberates from slavery only to relocate us to poverty. To hell with him, they decide. We’re better off with a god we can handle. And so, the Psalmist writes, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” YHWH’s anger burned hot against his people. But Moses interjects, dissuading YHWH before he brings about the destruction of his idol-worshiping people.

I love that ending, so wonderfully Jewish: The chosen one of God is so convincing that he can even change God’s mind! But I have to say, in a time like ours, a time of Ferguson, a time of death sentences, a time of living death sentences, I’m left somewhat unsatisfied by such an ending. Yes, lately, I must confess, I have been surprised to find myself ready—eager, even—to let my own anger at the world burst into flame. I know I wasn’t the only one whose heart leapt at the sight of that young black man in Ferguson hurling that fiery teargas canister back at a police force that had just murdered another young black man in the street. I know: flaming metal is not the answer to racist police violence. I know. But I also know that there comes a time when the death-dealing ways of the world become so senseless that hurling flaming metal back at the death machine from which it came is the only thing that makes any sense to me. Yes, there is a time for rage that burns.

And so, because I cannot help but thirst for such fire in the face of such senselessness, I returned to this parable, so impossible to preach, in the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel. With the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, we find Jesus late in his ministry trying, once again, to illuminate for his listeners what this “kingdom” he’s been speaking of is all about. And as we heard a moment ago, it is a rather grim account.

A king throws a feast for his son, but the guests refuse to come, killing the ones sent to invite them. So the king sends an army to kill and burn the city of the ones who murdered his messengers. After the king sends his slaves to the streets to invite anyone they can find to the party, the house is finally filled with guests. But the king spots a man who is not dressed in a way befitting the occasion. So the king has the man bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Clearly, parables are a different kind of story: they’re designed not to relate some hidden allegorical message, exactly, but rather, to utilize the unexpected in order to dislodge the hearer into some new understanding. As Flannery O’Connor put it: “For the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” So what is it that Jesus is shouting in this parable about the nature of the kingdom? And what might he be shouting at us?

For starters, Jesus’s hearers live in a culture in which to refuse an invitation to a banquet or feast is to refuse the dignity and honor of the one who invited you. Moreover, his hearers know that a feast is a sign of God’s provision, of the abundance of God’s reign, where all have what they need to live and to thrive. And as we see in the final round of invitations in the parable, God welcomes all to this table—but not without expectation.

To accept an invitation to the king’s feast requires that one orient oneself to the occasion, and to its host—or, in the language of the parable, one must dress the part. Conversely, to wear something less than befitting the occasion is to reject both the occasion and its host. Simply put, Jesus is telling his listeners that God invites all into God’s kingdom of abundance and justice. But as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, this gift also sets a task.

Indeed, to accept the invitation to God’s feast is to reconfigure one’s whole way of being in the world, it is to allow oneself to be transformed such that one becomes aligned with the character and shape of this table—this table at which everyone has what they need to survive, where the poor are filled with good things, and the lowly are lifted up. To wear the right clothing to the banquet, then, is to “clothe” oneself with righteousness, to allow oneself to be re-oriented according to God’s healing, restorative, and transformative justice. As Revelation 19:8 reads, “Fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

The man thrown into the outer darkness, then, is not cast away because he picked the wrong outfit; he is cast away because he did not act according to the character of the feast the king had prepared: he did not clothe himself according to the just ordering of God’s kin-dom. In the parable, the king’s army burned the city of those who refused to come to God’s table at all, who even killed the ones sent to invite them. Like YHWH in Exodus, God’s fury burns hot against those who refuse the invitation to order their lives around this table of justice and abundance and healing. There is a time for rage that burns. But from where will the flames come? And which side are we on?

We, too, are invited to this feast, to this table. Which means that we too must orient our whole lives around it. But perhaps God is also sending us, God’s messengers, to invite this world of injustice to God’s table, to a reconfigured way of moving and being, to a justice that does not respond to violence with the violence of death sentences and living death sentences, a justice, rather, that engages in the hard work of accountability, communal healing, and provision for all; a justice that dismantles death and fosters life wherever death prevails. If we are to be, with our very lives, the messengers of God’s kin-dom of justice, we must carry with us the flame of hope for the wholeness of God’s future, a light that shines in the darkness, in the darkness that does not overcome it.

But the flame of hope alone will not suffice in our times. Indeed, perhaps God is also calling us to carry the flame of resistance, the flame that burns down the walls that uphold the houses of retribution, of execution, of isolation, of criminalization. Perhaps God is sending us out to char the kingdoms of death-dealing injustice, of the powers that marginalize, contain, and terrorize whole communities and generations. Perhaps God is calling us to set ablaze whatever brings about the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I am reminded here of my friend Kevin. He gives the warmest hugs, and his prayers roar like thunder. He is also the property of the state of Tennessee, sitting on its death row, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Gathered around a table with Kevin and others a few years ago, I asked Kevin what he would say, if he had the chance, to the system that dehumanizes him daily. With fire in his eyes, he pointed his finger at the concrete wall, and said: “I am NOT who you make me out to be.” To make Kevin a piece of property, and to kill him, is to refuse God’s invitation to the table of healing, the table of justice. A year later, shortly after it was announced that executions would resume in our state, I sat in a circle of prayer next to Kevin. He held my hand so tightly it almost turned blue, as he shouted in prayer, imploring the God of life to dismantle the machinery of death. Kevin’s fire is the fire of hope; Kevin’s fire is the flame of resistance.

Wielding the fires of justice—the light of hope and the flame of resistance—carries its risks. But perhaps the greater risk is refusing the invitation to the feast of God’s righteousness altogether. Not because we would be choosing punishment instead of reward, but because participating in God’s abundance in communities of hope and resistance is already God’s gift and God’s task for us. It is salvation, liberation, and healing. Until God’s kin-dom comes in its fullness, it is only by the light of hope and faith, and by the flame of resistance—the fires of justice—that we may see. May God give us eyes to see, hearts to hope, and courage to resist, by the fiery, unquenchable power of the Spirit.

Amen.

Benediction

In the words of the prophet Johnny Cash,

San Quentin [and all houses of injustice], may you rot and burn in hell

May your walls fall and may we live to tell

May all the world forget you ever stood

And may all the world regret you did no good

 

Until that day, the coming of God’s kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven,

When the power of death in all its forms is finally undone,

May our rage burn as bright as hope, and as hot as resistance.

May the gift of healing come to those who suffer violence and loss

May the gift of liberation come to those who suffer a wounding captivity

May the gift of courage embolden our resistance

And may the gift of hope lighten our path and so enable our love

In the name of the God who is love and who is life,

Amen.

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