October 15, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Well, isn’t that just a heartwarming gospel, right?
Jesus tells a really weird parable. It’s about a king who wants to throw a wedding banquet for his son, and not only are folks rude and not properly RSVPing, but they kill the messengers – I mean they really don’t want to go to this party? So, the king figures he’s already got the food and everything – let’s just grab anyone off the streets – there has to be somebody who’s hungry. He sends a bunch of his folks out, they find some willing people (he is offering free food after all). The king comes into the big hall to a full party in swing, when he notices that somebody isn’t dressed properly, and the king has this person thrown out into the night.
So, what is Jesus trying to say here?
The author, Robert Louis Stevenson once said “Everyone, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
Some have argued that Jesus is talking about the afterlife in all this banquet talk, but if you really look at what Jesus generally preaches, you will find that he is more focused on the kingdom of God that is here, and what we do about that with our own lives now. The banquet of God is happening all around us.
Now, before we get to looking more closely at that, let’s take a look at the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. St. Paul seems to be so frantic in the closing of his letter – like he’s trying to cram on to the last bits of paper everything we should remember. Almost like a parent might before their kid goes off to college or gets married. In a flurry he implores them to Rejoice! Don’t worry. The Lord is near. Peace! Oh…and whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, do that.
St. Paul, in his usual intense way, is trying to tell us something really important – something Jesus is telling his disciples too – that there is a way to be in the world.
Both Jesus and St. Paul are asking a simple question. One that needs to be asked. One that was asked of a little girl once many years ago.
“When United Methodist Bishop Leontine Kelly, now retired, was elected to the episcopacy in the United Methodist Church in 1984, she was the second woman and the first African-American woman to be elected bishop of any major denomination.
When she was 10 years old, she lived with her parents in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was a pastor, active in the community. One morning, as she was getting ready for school, she heard a knock on the front door. She ran down the stairs to answer it. There on the step was an imposing woman with a confident air. Only later did Leontine find out that the visitor was Mary McCleod Bethune. Dr. Bethune was a prominent educator and civil-rights leader, founder of a school for African–American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that became Bethune-Cookman University, and advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was in town to raise money for her school, an effort with which Leontine’s father was helping.
Bishop Kelly says that as she looked up in awe at this imposing woman, Dr. Bethune looked down at her, with no preliminary statement or question like “How are you this morning?” or “Could you go get your parents?” She simply looked at her and inquired, “Little girl, who do you plan to be?”
At the moment, the fifth-grade girl had no plans to be anything other than a fifth-grade girl. But the question started her thinking, and it came to guide her life, gaining more and more resonance as she came to understand just who it was who was asking the question.
Dr. Bethune’s question is a good one: “Who do you plan to be?” Or, in the language of the gospel – will we accept an important invitation and what do we plan to wear? Because the question Jesus is asking really is – who do we plan to be? And our answer matters deeply.
If the party of God is happening all around us, are we participating in it, have we accepted the invitation, or are we too busy to be a part of it?
And if we were to go, what would we be wearing?
And so I think it bears noting the words at the beginning of St. Paul’s letter, because the church itself needs to consider how we have clothed ourselves over the centuries. He writes, “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
For over two centuries, the church has not only participated in the patriarchy of society, but has actually been engaged in promoting it. It has only been in the last several decades that women, like Bishop Kelly, have been allowed to hold leadership positions in the church, and in some parts of Christendom, they are still barred from it.
Yet, if we are really reading scripture, St. Paul makes it abundantly clear that women were working side by side with him as equals in the proclamation of the gospel. In fact, there were twelve women Paul explicitly mentions by name as being co-workers with him – a fact frequently neglected by the church for centuries. In addition to the two we hear about today Euodia and Syntyche, there were Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Apphia, Nympha, Chloe, Lydia, Phoebe, and Priscilla (always mentioned before her husband, Aquilla – very unusual to do that, which means she likely had money or power). And, scholars argue that a thirteenth, Junia has been misrepresented since the 13th century as a male, when her name was changed in biblical translations to Junias. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.
Why is that important? Because the objectification of women is the result of patriarchy, and the church has to own the sin of the cloak of this bigotry we have worn for centuries, and the way in which we have excluded women from the invitation to the feast. It is all over the language of our liturgy, which is why I refuse to use male language for God. Language matters – it is the very robe we wear that reflects our heart. And until we can cast off this male centered language, we own the result – because Robert Louis Stevenson was right, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences – every single day, and the consequences of the church’s patriarchy is that we uplifted the patriarchy of the society around us, and as a result women are second class citizens all around the world, and men like Harvey Weinstein and so many others feel empowered to use and abuse them.
So you see, how we speak, and how we act in the world matters a great deal, and we have to begin to ask ourselves the question Dr. Bethune asks: “Who do we plan to be?”
Do we want to be the ones overturning the tables of patriarchy, or will we continue to clutch tightly to the barrage of male language in our church because if feels so cozy and comfortable?
Who do we plan to be? Well, I know some people who have their own answer.
I was again a speaker at the 15th Annual LGBT Leadership Conference this past Friday, an annual gathering of college students focused on advocacy and activism. Their courage and joy in being their authentic selves clearly showed that they understood deeply the power of the question “”Who do you plan to be?” because while each of them were unique in who they were, and what their journeys had been, they had an answer to that question, and it was “who I was born to be – my own out and proud gay, queer, lesbian, trans self.” And here again, the church has more work to do to discard the robe of bigotry against LGBT people that comes out of scriptural illiteracy, and take on the mantle of prophetic witness that all people are God’s beloved children.
Folks, we all have things we must answer – things we must do – because all around us, there are people trying to keep people from the table, and others who didn’t even know they were invited in the first place.
Just this week, our President decided that the poor are not worthy of health insurance, and that the US citizens in Puerto Rico were not worthy of clean water, medical assistance, food, shelter.
Sometimes, with everything going on in the world today, it may seem hard to imagine the joyous feast of God’s grace, where all are invited, where all are fed, where we stand with all of creation clothed in love and peace – and part of the reason it is hard to imagine is that we haven’t lived it ourselves, maybe we are the ones excluded too. But everyday there are signs of it all around, if we are open to seeing them.
Amid all the news of this week, one story seemed to get lost in the din of inhumanity. It is a story about Dr. Bethune, the same woman who stood in that doorway long ago, inspiring a young black girl toward her future.
A Florida newspaper is reporting that “A statue …[of Dr.] Bethune moved closer Tuesday to replacing a likeness of a Confederate general in representing Florida in the U.S. Capitol. The Florida House Government Accountability Committee voted 20-1, with Jacksonville Republican Jay Fant opposed, to approve a measure (HB 139) that calls for a statue of Bethune to replace [the one of] Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall, [within the US Capitol building in Washington, DC].” “State Rep. Neil Combee, an Auburndale Republican said about this move “It’s clear that her life was devoted to improving people’s lives…” Think about that – the statue of one who fought to keep African Americans enslaved will be replaced by an African American woman who stood up for the rights for all people to receive an education and to be all they hope and plan to be.
So, it would seem that Dr. Bethune will not only loom large in the memory of Bishop Kelly, but will be a giant reminder of justice in the halls of congress, as she was in her life. You see, in addition to being an inspiration to that little girl in the doorway of her home, her very life serves as a symbol of what is possible if we refuse to see only what is, but plan for what can be, because she was not only known for her work in education and serving in what was described as “The Black Cabinet” of President Roosevelt, she was “a stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist. She came to be called “The First Lady of The Struggle” because of her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans.
But perhaps what is most inspiring is that Dr. Bethune was “born in Mayesville, South Carolina, to parents who had been slaves, [and] she started working in fields with her family at [the] age five.” The same age as that little girl staring up at her in the doorway so long ago. And yet, she saw God’s banquet around her even amidst the horror of her childhood. She knew there was a celebration others tried to keep from her and she demanded a seat at the table. And not only that – once she pushed past those who tried to keep her out in the cold – she invited others to the feast. This is what each of us is called to do too – accept the invitation, and fight like hell to ensure that everyone is brought into the feast, expanding the table until everyone is given a seat.
Dr. Bethune asked a question of that little girl that was never asked of her – never asked because she was born into a world that rejected the banquet of God’s love for a feast of hate. And now we need to ask it of ourselves.
Who do we plan to be?
As citizens of this country, we need to answer that question. We need to decide if we are a country that lives into the words of our pledge of allegiance, that claims we believe in “liberty & justice for all?” or are we more concerned with what happens when our anthem is played, than what than what our country claims as true?
And as Christians, we also must ask ourselves that question too – who do we plan to be? We have to decide if we will be guests at God’s banquet of life clothed in love, in peace, in generosity, kindness, and compassion – inviting others in? Or, will we be clothed in the robes of fear, bigotry, hatred, and violence – rejecting that feast for one that destroys ourselves and those around us, or trying desperately to prevent others from entering the doors in the first place? Will we answer St. Paul’s call to keep to what is true, honorable, and just? Or, do will we stay in our comfort zones turning our backs on what is going on around us.
As we do each week in our Stewardship season, you will receive a gift blessed at the altar. This week, it is a little bottle of bubbles, the kind you often get at weddings these days to shower on the happy couple as they leave the church. Let it be not only a reminder of the lessons that this gospel wedding banquet can give to us, but of the bubbles in which we each live. The bubble that shield our eyes and ears from the lives of our sisters and brothers all around the world. The bubble which must also be broken for each of us to be our authentic selves.
“Everyone, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” The consequences for each of us, and for the world, are wrapped in our answer to this question:
“Who do you plan to be?”
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 Alyce M. McKenzie, “What’s in your heart?” Knack for Noticing blog for February 5, 2011. patheos.com/community/knackfornoticing/2011/02/05/whats-in-your-heart/.