The story is told in several ways - mostly, in my experience, by Presbyterians - of the preacher who is going on about a passage such as the parable we’ve just heard from the Gospel, that delivers dire warnings about God’s judgement, in which the unrighteous will be thrown in to outer darkness. The preacher, quoting the scripture, warns that in that place of hopelessness there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And a voice from an older person in the congregation pipes up, out of curiosity, at least; representing, perhaps his or her own demographic, in an age of less effective dental care: “What if you’ve got no teeth?” the voice cries out to the fulminating preacher.
To which the preacher responds with certainty, “Teeth will be provided!”
The idea persists that if there is a God, he must be awfully good at ensuring that his people suffer. And many wonder whether or not God has any higher priority than just that - condemning people to outer darkness and an eternity of teary grinding of teeth. Today’s Gospel reading does not do much to dispel this notion. The only thing that’s missing from it are the flames of hell. But no one fleeing the fires in northern California this past week would mind such an omission, I’m sure. I found myself weeping the other day as I read the accounts of some of the 36 people accounted dead so far from those fires, as the flames still blaze. The photos I’ve seen of Santa Rosa might as well be scenes of Sodom and Gommorrah. Friends I have in the area still sound stunned, devastated, and deeply uncertain about the future.
This week it was fires; last week it was hurricanes; a madman with an arsenal the week before that; earthquake the week before; and floods the week before that. And that’s not even to mention the threat of war, or terrorism, or the rising tide of violent nationalism; or a dysfunctional federal government.
How dare the church ask us to step inside and hear about a king who throws a wedding banquet and discovers a guest without the proper garment. “Bind him hand and foot,” the king says to his attendants, “and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” All because he wasn’t wearing a wedding garment.
Where are you supposed to get the proper garment when you have been pulled in from the street, where you are begging in order to get your next meal, or your next fix? How can you be properly attired if a Nobel Peace Prize winner won’t even speak up for you whenpeople around you are being slaughtered? Where are you supposed to find the proper clothes when everything you own has just been incinerated, and your wife died in your arms as you sought safety in the swimming pool?
It’s frankly almost indecent to ask us to sift through the wreckage of this parable and look for good news. One begins to suspect why the invited guests chose not to attend the wedding banquet of the king’s son in the first place.
That is, until we realize that we have the privilege of watching this parable unfold from a hillside, a safe distance away from the goings-on. There is a barely-moving stream nearby, as we lie down on the broad green hillside. We can hear the band playing wedding music at the king’s palace, and we see the torches burning. And we have heard the gate slam shut, outside of which we now see a shoddily dressed man, stumbling into the deepening gloom of the night as he walks slowly away from the banquet in ever more painful steps. And we can hear him sobbing.
As we watch, a young man dressed as a shepherd happens to come along, and asks if he can join us on then hillside. Of course he may. He stares with us at the strange story unfolding. And he can point out to us from our elevated position the farms and businesses of the neighbors who had declined the invitation to the feast. He knows the area, and the situation.
The shepherd carries a bag, and from it he takes a bottle of wine, which he offers to share with us. There is also some bread and some lovely oil to dip it in.
“Tell us,” we ask him, “tell us about this strange king, so generous and so demanding; so difficult to understand; so insistent on his way?”
“Well,” said the shepherd, “this kind of thing has happened before. It’s true that the king is wealthy and generous. He has opened his gates before to those whom he calls his neighbors. But they have riches of their own, in fact most of them have more money than he does. They suspect that any feast he could serve would be inferior to the feasts they put on their own tables. They imagine that his taste is old-fashioned, his menu is second-rate, and that his wine will run out.”
“Is this true?” We ask of our new friend. “Is the king of limited means?”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he tells us. “Although the stone walls around his palace seem old, and the trees have not been pruned so well, and their branches reach out over the wall, all is, in fact, beautiful within. And although at his table the fare is sometimes simple, it is no less exquisite for its simplicity. Every dish is delicious; every joint of meat unblemished; every vegetable brilliantly prepared; every segment of fruit perfection in sweetness; every jug of wine from the best vintages. True, the silver is old and scratched from use, and the china is of a very ancient pattern; but it’s also true that none of it could be found anymore, not anywhere else in the world.”
“Then why,” we ask, “why do the neighbors decline his invitations?”
“Who knows?” says the shepherd. “They imagine they have better things to do.”
“But why is he so fearsome,” we ask. “Why, if he calls guests in off the street, does he then punish them, and cast them into outer darkness if they are not wearing the proper clothing? Why does he condemn one so innocent, whom he invited himself? How can he be so horrible a king?”
“Oh,” says the shepherd, “that is because he knows the neighbors are watching, and he hopes that he can teach them a lesson as they peer out from the windows of their farms and business. But not only them.”
“What?” we ask. “Who else? Who else is watching?”
“Why, you are, of course,” the shepherd says, as he offers another sip of wine. And as he does so, the darkness around the king’s palace grows darker, and the stumbling cast-out figure is no longer visible, although we can still hear him weeping, and possibly even gnashing his teeth. And the gloom seems to be approaching the hillside on which we are sitting. And we realize that we can no longer see the farms or businesses of any of the neighbors. And a certain fear begins to grip us. And we wonder if perhaps this shepherd is not merely a shepherd. And we begin to worry about the wine he has been offering us, and the bread, and the oil. And we sense that he can sense our unease. And we realize that it is very dark now, and we admit a certain worry to the shepherd. “Now that it is so dark, we will never find our way home. The only light is in the direction of the king’s palace. But look at us, we have no wedding garments. We would not dare to be seen anywhere near this king or his palaces, lest he treat us the way he treated that poor soul who is weeping even now in the darkness.”
“My friends,” says the shepherd, “do not worry. Only, follow me.”
We are not sure this is a good idea. Has the wine made us a little drunk? Or has he poisoned us? He sees that we are reluctant to get up and follow him. We remind him that we have nothing to wear but the clothes we came with, and that these are not suitable should we find ourselves brought anywhere near the king’s presence.
But the shepherd holds up the little cruet of oil he has. “Stand up,” he says, “and let me anoint you. For this is holy oil, and you will find that if I put only a drop of it on your head you will be fit for a king.”
What choice do we have? It has become so dark that even the shadows seem dark as death, and we can hardly even see ourselves. The light is only faint enough to let us follow the footsteps of the shepherd, after he has anointed us each with a single drop of holy oil.
With trepidation and uncertainty we let our footsteps fall in line with his, as we near the king’s palace, and the music from within can be heard more clearly now. And the shepherd begins to speak.
“Have you noticed, my friends, who is missing from the story that you watched unfold from the hillside? The king has thrown a wedding banquet for his son, but nowhere in the story does the son appear.
“I am the king’s son,” he says. “And while his other servants went out into the streets to find other guests, I was sent out to find you.
“For it is the will of my father that everyone should be invited to the wedding banquet, and, indeed, it is his will that everyone should come. Many there are who reject his invitation. Do you suppose there will be no consequences for this?” he asks.
“Yes, there is an outer darkness,” he continues. “There may well be sulfurous fires burning. There may be brimstone. There may be weeping; and there may be gnashing of teeth. But it is not my father’s will that any one of his creatures should ever suffer thus. He will do everything to lead you into his kingdom, but he will not compel you to come.
“He will send me to you in a green pasture, and he will unfold before your eyes the fear of what might be in the deep darkness outside the strong bright walls of his palaces. He will show you a version of yourself, ill-clad and unprepared for judgment, because that is not the way he wants you. He will allow you to hear your own weeping, even the sound of your own gnashing teeth.
“But I have spread a table before you. I have anointed you with oil. I have poured you enough to make your cup run over.
“There lies before you a path so treacherous that you do not know whether you wish to travel it. But you have no choice, for the path is life. And you could choose to walk that path without ever heeding the invitation of the king. You could conclude, as so many others have, that his riches cannot compare with all the other riches on offer. You could decide on any given Sunday that you have better things to do with your time, than go to an old-fashioned banquet. You could decide to rely on your own strength when the waters come, or the earthquake hits, or the flames overtake you, or the bullets fly. Or you could pretend that you will never ever have to come near to the valley of the shadow of death. But you’d be kidding yourself.
“All of us must cross the valley of the shadow of death, eventually, and other dark valleys too. But I am with you, and I will comfort you, yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you, and you may fear no evil. For I will always come to you. I will follow you all the days of your life. For it is my father’s will that you and all those that he has fashioned with his own fingers should dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Not quite ready to accept this offer, we object, even as he walks beside us: “But Lord, how could this be? We have not enough faith, we have not enough hope, we have not enough love ever to earn the favor of the king.”
“Fear not,” says the shepherd, “about a lack of faith, or hope, or love. Faith will be provided. Hope will be provided. Love will be provided.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 October 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia