Scripture: MATTHEW 22:1-14;
30TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE TO REV. MARK SIMONE
When I was a ministry intern one long-ago summer at a small church in Maine, I was leading worship one Sunday morning. The service was about to begin, and I was sitting alone in the chancel as the organist played the prelude. In the front row sat the Witham family. One of the daughters—she was maybe about eight—was staring intently at me and vehemently pointing to her forearm. I finally figured out that she wanted me to look at my own forearm. There, on the sleeve of my brand-new sport coast, was the price tag still attached. Realizing there was no way to remove it, I groaned inwardly at this sartorial faux pas. To make matters worse, shortly after I had seen that tag and led the call to worship, I sat down again, and my pants pocket caught on the arm of the chair, making a loud ripping sound as my pocket was demolished.
Nor was that my only clothing mishap. I’ve worn tee shirts inside out. On my college freshman basketball team, a teammate and I had to share a pair of shoes one game, as one of us forgot to bring his own. And my sorry dreams—I can’t tell you how often, in those dreams, I have appeared in this pulpit in only my underwear: not a welcome experience or sight, I assure you!
So when a poor wedding guest is discovered not to be clad in suitable clothing, I have at least some sense of what that might be like. And, perhaps like you, if you have had some similar experience, I confess I am horrified at the punishment the guest in Jesus’ story is subject to when caught in the wrong garment at a wedding. To be honest, the whole story is appalling. Messengers are slaughtered just for issuing an invitation to a wedding. The king gets revenge by killing the murderers and burning their city. And then, in the coup de grace, when new guests are invited in off the street—without any chance to go home and change, mind you—one of the guests is sent to hell by the fashion police.
And if you’re like me, you may well be thinking, “This certainly isn’t the Jesus I know and follow. What a reprehensible story, and certainly not one to which I’m going to pay the slightest bit of attention.” Violence and judgment dominate this story, and we may well wince at its harsh edges.
One of Jesus’ most common modes of teaching was telling stories called parables. Matthew tells us this is a parable. But if I may be technical for a moment, this isn’t really a parable. A parable is a story with an open-ended meaning. Think of the story Jesus tells of a prodigal son and his forgiving father. You can imagine yourself in that story as the father or the older son or the younger son. A parable sends us back to our own lives. It doesn’t have one simple meaning. It opens us to many.
Our story for today, on the other hand, is not so much a parable as it is an allegory. In an allegory, each character and event in the story stands for something particular. It’s not open-ended. It’s got a specific hidden meaning that the reader is to uncover. In the story of the wedding banquet, Matthew is telling us that a king—who represents God—is throwing a party for his son—who stands for Jesus. The king wants people to come and be part of Jesus’ world, so invites everyone to the party. As it happens, many of the invitees—who signify the religious leaders—don’t want to come, rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. So judgment is passed on those who elect not to come to the party. And others—gentiles—are invited to attend instead. So there’s a straightforward meaning here. The religious authorities of the day totally miss the boat, and gentiles get the significance of Jesus.
Now for us Christians, stories like this can be extremely problematic. Eternal judgment is apparently being passed here on those who reject Jesus. In a world in which anti-Semitism has been so prevalent, these can be dangerous words: ‘Look,’ say some, ‘Jesus thinks Jews should be punished for their apostasy.’ Violence and antipathy have too often been fed by such texts.
So there are some vital affirmations we need to make instead. First, that isn’t what Jesus meant. This wasn’t a battle between Christians and Jews. This was an intramural skirmish among people all of whom were Jewish. Remember, in Jesus’ time there were no “Christians.” Jesus was a Jew, and all his disciples were Jews. They were certainly vying with Jewish religious leaders to see who was being more faithful to God. But this wasn’t a battle between two different established religions. It was a family dispute. This story Jesus tells isn’t passing judgment on all Jews. It’s conveying, instead, the urgency of people making their way to God. There’s no warrant here for anti-Semitism. Like faithful Christians, faithful Jews, too, know the richness of a life lived in the palm of God’s hand. So first: no anti-Semitism here.
And second, maybe the most striking part of the story is that, while judgment is certainly passed on those who don’t follow Jesus, so, too, is judgment passed on those who do follow Jesus. Remember who it is who’s condemned for wearing the wrong clothing. It’s not an outsider who receives this stiff penalty. It’s an insider, one of the people who actually accepts the invitation to the party—that’s who’s relegated to hell.
The disturbing and sobering part of the story is not that Jesus passes judgment on Jews or any other non-Christians—he doesn’t. It’s that he sets such high standards for those who do indeed decide to follow him. This is the side of Jesus many of us don’t want to hear. We like the sweet and kind and forgiving Jesus. We’re not so enamored, though, of the Jesus who says, ‘Buck up. Play your part. Carry your share of the load, and more.’
Off-putting as it may sound, though, this hyperbolic story is Jesus’ way of conveying how vital is a life of service and justice and love. We’re not to be free-loaders riding on someone else’s care for us. We’re to be agents of care for others in a world that is so often broken and hurting and frightening.
So, lest you worry that you’re not attired appropriately for the banquet of a Jesus life, as it happens, Federated Church provides just the place for us to serve, to do justice, to love—for us to be clad, in other words, in such a way that we belong at God’s wedding feast. I was talking recently, for example, to a man in the church who feels lonely and cut off from people during this pandemic. All the people he used to sit with at worship he no longer sees. He suggested that I say to all of you: just call or send a note to one person in the church this week. Or to a long-lost friend. That’s a piece of clothing that fits, isn’t it: just make one call or send one note this week.
Another way we at Federated might dress in appropriate garments is to take proper stock of the event that spawned this holiday weekend. When Columbus and his crew voyaged to what came to be called the Americas, it was a sign, certainly, of an adventurous and curious spirit. At the same time, though, it resulted in the colonization of native peoples; it marked the onset of the transatlantic slave trade; and it resulted in the deaths of untold millions by murder and disease. In the words of noted Harvard historian Jill Lepore: “the nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds” (These Truths, p. 10). To dress rightly for the banquet is to acknowledge these mixed and compromised truths of our nation’s founding and heritage. And, in joining in Federated’s justice ministries, it’s to celebrate the blessings, but also to undo the harm, of that legacy.
Another way we can dress well and contribute to a more just and peaceful world, all the while undoing that legacy, is to make a gift to HOLA in their fall fundraiser. You can bid on various gift baskets, or simply make a donation. Or, in a related vein, there’s also this particularly apt outreach: on the next two Saturdays and Sundays, we can bring to the church items of clothing that will be shared with people ensnared in poverty. How appropriate for today’s story: we show that we’re dressed right by dressing others right. We can provide warm, water-resistant coats and boots for homeless and poverty-stricken people. They would love warm hats, gloves, socks, and new underwear, as well. You talk about an opportunity to dress appropriately for the banquet! What could be better than providing clothes that will make the upcoming winter tolerable for those who have little! You and I dress right by helping to dress others for that glorious feast.
To dress in a way that befits our status as children of God is to be attentive to the needs of the world, and to be God’s partners in making a difference. Dismantling racism, feeding and clothing people who have little, keeping connected to others during this pandemic: these are the clothes that befit our our place at the banquet as God’s beloved children.
The funny thing about this story is that we tend to notice only the judgment that is, admittedly, pretty eye-opening. What we strangely miss, so often, though, is the affection and grace that underlie the story. Yes, some are judged. But at the core of the story is that everyone is invited. Everyone. Not just me, not just you. Everyone: old-timer and newcomer, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, cisgender and transgender, Black and white, rich and poor, and, as the story says explicitly, “both good and bad” (22:10). Nobody is left out. Everybody is welcomed. And they all—we all—get to share in a party, a banquet, a wedding reception—the happiest of shared meals.
Bottom line? You and I live every moment of our lives at a party. We are expected to dress for the occasion. But that’s only because the embrace and affection we receive there are extravagant and boundless, so why not outfit ourselves appropriately. The banquet table is set. Love is the feast. That love is the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the food we savor. You and I are adored.
The signs of that love are all around us. We see it wherever we turn. One of the ways we see it is in the people we treasure and who treasure us. I want to take a few moments now in a special ministry moment to celebrate that banquet by lifting up one of our number here at Federated.
Thirty years ago this past Wednesday, on October 7, 1990, Mark Simone began his tenure as Associate Pastor of Federated. This church has been immensely blessed by his presence and his ministry. This morning, on what is providentially Pastor Appreciation Sunday, and as a sign of the richness of God’s banquet, we’re going to take a moment to surprise him and to honor his remarkable ministry.
Mark is full of endearing traits. One, of course, is his legendary sense of humor. It’s natural, and so quick, and always gentle and affectionate. Just a week ago Tuesday, I called Mark. When I asked how he was doing, he said he was making substantial inroads on the sermon he was preparing for last Sunday’s service. This was a Tuesday, mind you! I am never that far along on a sermon on a Tuesday, so I said to him, in mock indignation, that if he was close to finishing his sermon, I was going to strangle him. And without skipping a beat, Mark said, “I know you won’t do that, because I know you believe in social distancing.” I roared.
Some of you will remember the memorial service we had here at Federated this past winter for long-time beloved music director Bill Foley. Jokes had been made in that service about Bill’s famous propensity for weeping in public. As it happened, when Carol’s and Bill’s son Ken was in the midst of offering a eulogy for his father, Ken himself started to cry. And Mark spontaneously stood up in this packed sanctuary and, looking at the family in the front row, said, so the whole congregation could hear it, “Oh-oh, Carol, here he goes.” And the place erupted in laughter.
We have all experienced Mark’s delightful humor. One person sums it up by saying she so values “Mark’s warm, generous joyfulness. Being in his presence always leaves me feeling hopeful and positive.” A staff colleague notes how Mark’s “playful chiding” and “well-timed humor” keep “the staff on their toes.” Mark’s joy is infectious.
That is far from all Mark is, though. People who have attended a wedding officiated by Mark—and he has performed over 400—will remember his way of lightly but also seriously engaging the couple in reflection on the holiness of what they’re doing. One woman says that many years after their wedding, she and her husband still talk about things they discussed with Mark in pre-marital counseling. “During our ceremony,” she says, “Mark made us laugh, reflect, and remember that it wasn’t about the wedding, but about the marriage itself.”
Mark loves to listen to and perform music. He’s in his element playing the guitar, teaching youth to play, and reveling in music’s energy and joy. One of his former GROUP members remembers with great appreciation how he included her in endless music performances at church and in various other venues around the area.
Mark’s pastoral care and friendship have deepened the lives and faith, not just of youth, but of people of all ages. A staff colleague says when she started at Federated, Mark gave her a big hug. “It is just his way,” she says, “of wanting everyone in the world to feel they matter.” A friend who has witnessed Mark’s deep and abiding care for youth says Mark has been a great friend to him, as well. “[Mark] has been instrumental in my spiritual development, and I have leaned on him for understanding and clarity countless times.”
One church member recalls the way Mark was with her father-in-law after he had had significant surgery. When he had returned home, this man “went on and on,” she says, “about how much Mark’s visit and conversation meant to him.”
Among all his gifts, two qualities in particular stand out. One, of course, is the remarkable devotion he has shown to the youth of Federated over these thirty years. One of his colleagues talks about the “deep passion” he has for working with youth. Mark comes alive, says one of his children, when he is in their presence. Countless young people have gleaned something of the richness of God through GROUP and confirmation in these three decades. They have been given space and encouragement to explore their faith, and to question, and to doubt, and to affirm in their own particular and unique ways. Mark doesn’t tell people what to believe. He tells the Christian story and lets them find their place in that story. In countless youth worship services, they have testified to Mark’s willingness to let them be themselves. And Mark has shown a deep care for youth who may feel on the fringe. “They always find a place of belonging with Mark,” says one friend.
One former youth group member tells of how important it was to her that Mark listens so carefully. “Throughout high school and college,” she says, “I knew that I could talk to Mark about anything. He knows that little things to grown-ups are often really big things for teenagers and young adults.” Mark adores youth.
A second quality of Mark’s that is so crucial is his devotion to service as a Christian’s appropriate response to the love God shows to us all. One of Mark’s primary aims is that the worlds of his youth be expanded. He can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he has led thirty-four work camp trips to Maine, Michigan, Puerto Rico, North Carolina, South Dakota and elsewhere, giving youth the opportunity to learn the richness of giving themselves for the cause of something larger than they are. And he has made, I believe, seventeen trips to South Africa with Federated members of all ages, where they have spent time learning about apartheid and been taught by Craig Duffield and visited Sparrow Village. Countless eyes and hearts have been opened by these trips, these pilgrimages. They are signs of Mark’s devotion to the larger world.
No mention of Mark would be complete without noting the grace of his family. His marriage to Kathy has been a rare and precious gift. In ways impossible to enumerate, he treasures his children, Dan, Lindsey, Eryn, and Nick. And he cherishes, more than he could possibly say, his grandchildren, Toby, Jacob, Soren, Serenity, Charlie, and Lincoln, who all adore him in return.
What Mark conveys to us all is his boundless love for us. But also, and above all, what he conveys is the love of God that will not let us go. He is “a true lover of life,” says one friend. And he is a true lover of God. You feel this deeply when you’re with Mark. As is sometimes said, people won’t remember what you said to them. They will remember the way you made them feel. Mark makes people feel alive. He makes them feel appreciated. He makes them feel loved.
As we’ve said, music has played a vital part in Mark’s life. He has formed several bands and expressed his joy again and again by singing and playing. And among his favorite musicians are the Beatles. So let me conclude with some words of theirs to convey a little bit of who Mark is to us. With the youth, he has “[spoken] words of wisdom,” and let them know that they could trust God, that they could “let it be” (“Let It Be”). He has helped all of us to “take a sad song and make it better” (“Hey, Jude”). And when Mark enters the room, we might all well sing, “Here comes the sun” (“Here Comes the Sun”).
Mark, you are a remarkable gift—to our youth, to all of us, and to God. You have helped us wear just the right clothing for the wedding banquet. Congratulations on your thirty years of ministry here at Federated. May God continue to fill you full and bless you richly. Thanks be to God for all you do and are.