The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s061g14  Sunday 28  12/10/2014

‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’   Matthew 22.13

We turn from the picture of the vineyard as the kingdom to the picture of the wedding banquet as the kingdom.   Here the emphasis is on the invitation to all to come, not on the work done or the produce we make.   The parable is all about the people who are invited but decline the invitation; it is not about the king picking and choosing ‘worthy’ guests.   When I look at the present structure of the church, I don’t have to look far to see who might decline an invitation to a function if someone from another denomination were present, or someone from another faith, or someone with no faith.   I certainly have had cause to lament when a local civic council proposed an interfaith service which was scuttled by evangelical ‘christian’ ministers because people of other faiths were specifically included.   How fascinating it was to have a city council initiate a service of worship!   It gives the lie to the belief that modern western society is not interested in religion.

But the parable goes on, and the devout and the orthodox find that when they exclude themselves, the invitation is extended to those who have no religious credentials whatsoever, ‘both the good and the bad’ - the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners with whom Jesus regularly associated.

So when the king comes into the feast and finds a person without a wedding robe, the person is most likely someone who didn’t realise the breadth of the invitations and finds himself included with other riffraff.   This reluctant guest is weeping and gnashing his teeth because his idea of the kingdom is far more exclusive; he is weeping and gnashing his teeth like he would at a funeral; he is weeping and gnashing his teeth before he is thrown out; indeed he is allowed to join his fellow weepers and gnash-ers.

Again, we are invited into the world as it really is, to work alongside others who may, or may not share our perceptions of life and faith.   We are invited into the banquet of life, sharing with others, all others, the good things around us.   The parable of the vineyard and the parable of the wedding feast are put side by side to illustrate that it is not what we achieve in the vineyard that is paramount but our preparedness to work alongside others - our preparedness to rejoice in the company of others.

The excuses the initial guests made are just that, excuses.   They pretend that they have more important things to do, but why should we actually believe them?   Surely we are not impugning the authority of the bible if we doubt the excuses; surely we can see through the excuses to the real reason they demur.   They don’t want to be associated with the riffraff.

And if we look to our Anglican Church, who are they who are weeping and gnashing their teeth, if not the conservative evangelicals, at the presence of ‘liberals’ who are affirming and inclusive of others?

I have been reflecting that the whole purpose of St Paul’s letter to the Romans is to try to find a way out of the conundrum that religion and orthodoxy, christianity no less than others, so easily can become exclusive, closed and abusive.   The cross of Jesus is the exemplar par excellence of the extent of religious hatred.

Recently I attended a tele-conference lecture on dignity and spirituality in health care, and Professor Wilf McSherry (1) offered these conclusions: ‘Continue in our drive to re-establish and safeguard our core values and principles of caring.  Spirituality and dignity remind us to focus our attention on the individual - the person, not the medical condition or treatment.  Institutions and organisations and indeed wider society must value the contribution of our health and social care workforce.   There must be an open, honest and transparent culture where integrity, honesty and sensitivity flourish’.   And as he spoke I wondered how the church measures up to these ideals!   Are others the focus of our attention or is our orthodoxy and devotion our primary concern?   Do we confer dignity on others, others who inevitably differ in their perceptions of faith and life?   Do we admit that others have a spirituality or do we spend our energies inflicting our religion on others?   I am not all that sure that the church is an organisation which has an open, honest and transparent culture where integrity, honesty and sensitivity flourish.   And again it comes to me that western society has abandoned religion because it doesn’t model indiscriminate compassion and is at its core divisive rather than caring.

I have commented before that the angst in the Anglican Church surrounding a covenant, the ordination of women and the inclusion of people who express intimacy with someone of the same gender seems very much like the weeping and gnashing of teeth in this parable.   The narrower the community, the greater the angst; the more inclusive and affirming, the greater the happiness.   And the greater the happiness the more healthy both individuals and society in general are.   And we as the church are surely meant to be in the forefront of this movement rather than opposing it at every turn.

The real question is do we have a petulant god?   Is our god one who has to be the sole focus of attention - and the ignorant, the easily distracted, the weary, the misguided, can all go to hell?   Surely this is the sort of ‘god’ from which we are saved!

The king in the parable extends the invitation firstly to those he has reason to believe will want to come.  They are the prosperous and the devout - yet these demur!   For all the blessing they have received in life and their ready acknowledgement that these have come from God - their religion is all about a status which they will share with no one else.   No wonder the king is enraged!

Is not the world a huge wedding feast?   Why has the church often contributed to making it into a trial and an obstacle course for almost everyone else?   God is right to be enraged!   Why wouldn’t we look to modern secular humanism where we see a better model of care for all individuals, for society and for the environment?   Thank God they do!

1.  Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust NHS