Responding to God’s Invitation in Ferguson and Cohasset

Sermon for Sunday, October 12th, 2014 ||  Proper 23, Year A ||   Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 ||  Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Candidate for Holy Orders to the Priesthood

Good morning, I am so pleased to be here this morning and to have a chance to stay local and reconnect. I feel a pull toward this parish each Sunday morning, as I am gratefully aware that my name is included in the prayers for my continued discernment and formation for the priesthood. While I keep current about the parish happenings through the weekly updates and a few parishioners, nothing replaces being here in person. So it is my pleasure to see you face to face.

This morning I want to spend a few minutes considering Matthew’s gospel of the very challenging parable of the wedding banquet, how it might challenge and inform our experience of the kingdom of heaven, offer greater insight into God’s expectations for us, and then wonder together about how we can be more aware of God’s invitation for each of us to delight in the constant presence of the divine.

Jesus tells the story of a king who has prepared an elaborate wedding banquet for his son, but none of the invited guests show up, so he dispatches his slaves in waves to retrieve the invitees. Still, they do not come. In fact some of the invited guests kill the slave messengers. The now enraged king sends his troops into the city to kill the murderers and to burn and destroy the city.

But the king is not finished with his response, he declares that the people who were invited to the wedding weren’t worthy anyway, and he sends his slaves once more out to the surrounding streets to round up anyone they can – good and bad, and finally there is a crowded wedding banquet hall. If the parable stopped there, it would be so much easier to talk about abundance or the unearned blessings of the kingdom of heaven, but as Margot just read, the parable ends with an unexpected twist.

The king sees one of the wedding guests is not wearing a wedding robe perhaps not surprising as he had just been out on the street before receiving the unexpected wedding invitation. But the story here continues with its violent trajectory because the king orders the underdressed wedding attendant to be bound, beaten and condemned to exile – or in Matthew’s parlance his frequently repeated — sent to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In other words – beyond God’s reach.

The townsman was going to the king’s palace for a wedding banquet, it was an unexpected invitation, from a powerful person who was responsible for the safety and security of the people in his kingdom…of course, here the King is meant to be God, and we are the townspeople, perhaps turning down repeated party invitations.

I have a lot of trouble squaring the very vivid and violent description of what God did in the community and to his townspeople. It is discomfiting and does not comport with my experience of a loving and forgiving and inclusive God.

The ravaging and destruction of the city does evoke a familiar reference to many jurisdictions around the world where war and protest are underway, and where you have to look pretty hard to find any traces of an irrevocable banquet invitation.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a domestic area of unrest, when I agreed to speak about the Massachusetts health reform experience in St. Louis.   As I prepared for the trip, I very much had Ferguson Missouri on my mind. The violent protests, Michael Brown’s murder and the continuing clashes with police, as well as the relentless and seemingly hyperbolic media coverage made me wonder what was really going on, and made me want to see Ferguson face to face.

From the time I touched down at the St. Louis airport, through checking in to the hotel, I was asking people about Ferguson – and I was discouraged by a cab driver, a front desk clerk and a waitress not to go, each with their own reasons for counseling caution. I found out that there is an Episcopal Church in Ferguson – in fact it shares our own patron saint and is delightfully lead by Father Steve – of St. Stephens Ferguson. A quick search showed that Father Steve has been part of the Ferguson peace marches, so I thought his church would be a good destination, even as I was unsure, yet open hearted about what I would find.

My hotel room had no air-conditioning and was steaming hot, prompting the hotel to dispatch two climate engineers each a man in his early ‘40’s, one white, one African American — both born and raised in Ferguson.

I explained my interest in going to their hometown and for about 40 minutes of radiator fixing and race relations discussing, we made a list of several local attractions for me to check out. We also walked around the issues of the rapid racial transformation of Ferguson and the current troubles.

In 1970 99% of the population of Ferguson was white. Today, white residents make up only 29% of the population with nearly 70% of the townspeople being African American but the elected leadership of the city council and school board continue to reflect the population of the 1970s and are majority white. The police department has 53 officers, and only 3 are African American. These statistics alone do not guarantee strife, but they are an important part of the context for what we are seeing on the nightly news.

My trip to Ferguson began uneventfully enough as I plugged in the GPS coordinates for St. Stephens, was picked up by a young cab driver – a man who had immigrated from Ethiopia in the ‘90s and was now raising two daughters with his wife on the outskirts of St. Louis (for the record he and all but his older daughter do not have health insurance, just like nearly one fourth of the residents of the great state of Missouri), and we headed out to get a look at the town that has been so narrowly portrayed on television. Once off the highway we were on Florissant Avenue, a street that I recognized from the press reports. We saw a small group holding signs on a street corner, so I asked the cab driver to stop so that I might meet them. The sign that caught my attention was being held by a tired looking middle aged African American woman, and her hand written sign said simply “Stop Killing Us”.

There were only ten people on the street corner when I arrived – white and black, old and young and middle aged, and I asked what they wanted people in Boston to know about Ferguson. I heard a lot about how Ferguson isn’t safe, how the people need help and want our prayers. I was given some good links to social media outlets that were described as providing an unvarnished and more accurate look at what is going on. I was engaged in an interesting conversation with a young African American man who had left college to take care of an elderly relative in Ferguson. We had been talking for four or five minutes before he told me, calmly and without fanfare that he had been on the receiving end of tear gas a few nights before we met. As we were talking, a police cruiser pulled up behind my cab. When the cab driver noticed, he pulled into the parking lot next to where we were standing. What I didn’t notice and later surprised me, was that the police car followed the cab into the lot. My attention changed when I saw the officer get out of his cruiser and approach the cab driver’s door. The officer was a young white man, probably only in his mid twenties and I intercepted him to explain our presence and to assure him that we weren’t trying to cause any trouble.

The officer acknowledged what I said, but still required the cab driver to roll down his window in order to tell him what he had done wrong, telling the cab driver that he shouldn’t block traffic again. The officer continued by clarifying that the driver wasn’t in trouble, and that he – the officer – had talked with me and knew why he was there.

Nothing inappropriate was said, but it did feel odd if not simply patronizing to have the policeman purposefully giving driving tips to the cab driver. A second police cruiser came into the parking lot and a pedestrian who appeared to have been just walking by came up and began to yell at the officer about what she felt he should be doing with his time. Next, one of the people from the corner group came and began taping the encounter, sticking a cellphone camera in the police officer’s face and asking pointed questions. Shop-keepers came out of their stores to see what the growing commotion was, and slowly, with others joining in the shouting, the police officers returned to their cars. After asking some questions and watching how angry people were, I too got back in the cab and left.

The potential for violence was palpable. The chance for misunderstandings was guaranteed! Whether that police officer had honorable intentions or not, no good was going to come from his actions. And the protestors were so angry. Some were tired and others, the ones I found most upsetting were simply resigned. Before I hopped back into the cab one was saying that every day there is some provocation that results in raised voices, sometimes shoving or other physical contact. The police have removed the group’s shade tarp twice, and now there is apparently some legal restriction barring having tarps like the one they were using.

I left with the distinct impression that very few people I talked to in Ferguson were accepting divine banquet invitations or were aware of the constant presence of the kingdom of God. The police officer did not give the impression that he was honoring the divine in the cab driver, and the protestors were actively denying the diving in the officer.

My experience of Ferguson felt like a tinderbox, with any spark or provocation threatening an enormous eruption. The relationship between the members of the police force and the residents represented by the people on the corner are dangerous and potentially violent. My brief time in Ferguson was fraught and ugly. And since my visit on September 30th, two more black men have been shot by white police officers, one fatally. Because there are not improved relationships or community progress has not been made since the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed, there is no room for public discourse about the actual facts of these shootings.

We are assured that the kingdom of heaven is in Ferguson – it is in each of the people I met, available to all of the elected leaders and members of the police force. But I think of Ferguson as the kingdom of heaven as represented by the wedding banquet in the parable of today’s gospel reading. The banquet is there, the party is underway, but there is horrible distraction in the streets. People won’t come.

The harmony and joy that we know to be present at a wedding party, is available always through the divine in each of us. In Ferguson, there are awful earthly impediments – inequality, racism and prejudice and history that is standing in the way of people realizing and living into the promise of God’s divine feast.

Since returning from Ferguson I have been struggling to know what role or responsibility each of us has to embody the kingdom of heaven for Ferguson. In the parlance of community organizing or change agenting, what power does each of us have or leverage might we adopt to help make the kingdom of God tangible to the people who have may have lost their invitation to God’s party?

Perhaps a starting point is to be in touch with the presence of God and the kingdom of heaven right here and right now. (In the pews and surrounded by divine music, it is actually hard to miss) but outside of our corporate worship, in our daily lives, can we say that we are living in the kingdom as God’s people minute to minute, day and week and year by year? Perhaps our response to Ferguson, and our understanding of the wedding banquet parable comes down to the instructions we hear every time we fly and are told we must put our own oxygen mask on before we can assist a fellow traveler. We have to distinguish ourselves from the wedding guest in the parable who was cast out into the darkness, by being ready for the wedding and delighting in the invitation.

In the quiet and tranquility of Cohasset, there are fewer obvious impediments to our connection to the kingdom of heaven, but they still exist. Consider what keeps you from dancing with delight as though you are at a never-ending wedding reception. Is it a demanding or unreasonable boss? A mean friend? A distant or inattentive spouse? Family expectations or money troubles or poor health, sickness or grief? What is it in your life that blocks your access to the wedding banquet that God has set for us?

As part of my priestly formation, I’m attempting to intentionally and outloud accept God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven, to take a break from my own challenges to find a moment of joy or appreciation for one of God’s many gifts. I invite you to join me, as I’m certain that this affirmation will enhance our connection to the kingdom of God if not deliver us directly to the wedding banquet. And then I’m listening and available to hear how we can leverage our own experience and joy to help our brothers and sisters in Ferguson.  Amen.


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