Sermon October 15 2023 Stolpersteine Matt 22:1-14             Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever heard of the stolpersteine? The word literally translates to “stumbling stones” in German – but the stolpersteine are also a memorial art installation that began in Berlin in 1992 and has since spread to virtually all of Nazi-occupied Europe and even also the UK. 

Every place where a person last CHOSE to live or be, before that choice was permanently erased. By their execution, or by their deportation to execution, in a Nazi prison camp, labour camp, or extermination camp. It’s estimated that roughly 100,000 have been laid down on European sidewalks and pavements so far, in front of what were the apartments and homes where people lived – and the project continues.

Each of the stolpersteine representing one individual identified person – whether Communist, priest, disabled, homosexual, Slav, Roma, Jehovah’s Witness, or overwhelmingly Jewish – who was seized in order to be eliminated. 

When I first heard of the project I was tremendously moved by the physical evocativeness of a stone on the sidewalk placed deliberately to cause a stumble – to be jarring, to unbalance with the clear presenting PERSONESS of an individual PERSON murdered. Not six million Jews but THIS one. Not the other five million of all the other groups combined, but THIS one of THIS group. You’re walking and then you stumble and there they are and you don’t get to forget. 

And honestly, that was enough meaning for me. I thought it was brilliant and moving and monumentally evocative. 

But it turns out there’s a whole other subvertive layer to the stolpersteine project. Because it turns out that once upon a time in Germany, and not so very long ago, it was a completely common and perfectly run-of-the-mill bit of entirely acceptable anti-Semitism to say – if one happened to stumble over an annoyingly bumpy cobblestone – “oh, there must be a Jew buried there.”

So. Now… “Indeed,” says the stolperstein. “Stumble over me, here wedged between the cobblestones, and there really kind of is… a Jew buried here.”

We need sometimes to be jarred and thrown off balance. And we need sometimes for meaning to be subvertive – derived at least in part from an overturning appropriation of the common bits of language or the perfectly run-of-the-mill paradigms or the simply assumed norms.

Because that’s how we REALLY get challenged. When the new isn’t just new, but it also actively subverts the old.

Which brings us to Jesus, teaching his disciples by telling them parables: a narrative form that literally communicates meaning by subverting its listeners’ assumptions and expectations. 

Because parables are all about the surprise. That’s where the meaning is. No self-respecting shepherd, for example, leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one – but surprise! That’s how ludicrous God’s care for us is. And when a couple of so-called good holy religious fellows walk on by when a man needs help, and the one who actually stops is the officially “unclean” and officially ostracized -- then surprise! Maybe our neighbour isn’t only who we think it is.

It's always about the surprise. That stumbling stone that’s meant to catch listeners unaware, and jar them a bit. Unbalance them. And the parable that Beverley just read for us from Matthew -- it’s got plenty of stumbling stones.

Beginning with the very first one for the disciples, and maybe for some of us here too. When just a little ways in, they thought they’d heard this one before… 

until UNLIKE when Jesus told it back earlier in his ministry while travelling around the Galilee as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, THIS time – in Jerusalem at the end of his ministry as recorded in Matthew – THIS time when the King invites all his guests to a wedding banquet, apparently no one even bothers with the RSVP “I cannot come”. As immortalized, of course, by the Medical Mission Sisters in that epic 1960s Sunday School classic. 

Because instead, this time, the guests just don’t turn up. There’s no “I have married a wife”, there’s no “I have bought me a cow”, there’s no “fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum” – there’s not even that firm concluding invocation of personal boundaries: “Don’t ask me again, I cannot come”.  

This time, the guests just don’t turn up. It’s like for anyone familiar with Jesus’ FIRST version where everyone makes their excuses, there’s just this little bit of a stumbling stone. Tossed in by Jesus, perhaps, to jar and unbalance the disciples, and possibly us. To make sure we’re paying attention. Because it’s not in fact just a repeat.

Except that apart from that, it sort of seems like it is. Because the REAL surprise actually remains the same. When no one fancy and invited is willing to come to the King’s banquet, he invites instead all the hurting and hungry and ignored and rejected. 

And it’s such a shocking twist! The King himself inviting the lowest of low to eat and drink with him at his table!

Which, it may not feel that shocking to us, but it certainly would have been to those crowds in Jerusalem that day. Just as it was for the disciples when they heard it back in the Galilee. Because what is God like? God is like this King. Like a banquet that’s for anyone. NOT just the “best” or the “holiest” or the “fanciest” – God’s like a banquet that’s for anyone. And everyone. It’s the exact same message and meaning as when Jesus tells it earlier, as recorded by Luke.

Except then… Jesus throws down another stumbling stone. And suddenly… this is not AT ALL where we thought this was going. It is not AT ALL more or less the same parable as before with the exact same message and meaning. Not at all. And we stumble, and we’re jarred, we’re really sent off balance.

I mean, we already tried to just kind of overlook the fact that in this Matthew version, the Kind is seriously violent when his invited guests don’t come. But once the destitute and the hungry and the hurting are gathered? 

In comes that new stumbling stone, and it’s a big one. When the King’s suddenly even MORE unhinged, and he randomly starts raging at one of the guests for not wearing a proper wedding robe – and then he has him arrested and bound in chains. 

It really IS a shocking twist. And clearly the takeaway is very much NOT “What is God like? God’s like a banquet that’s for anyone”. The fellow with no wedding robe gets hauled off to prison, and that’s the end of the story.

Sometimes we need to be jarred and thrown off balance. Sometimes we need for that stumbling stone to be subvertive – for the meaning to be derived at least in part from an overturning appropriation of what’s gone before.

And I think that’s what Jesus is doing here. When he first tells this parable as recorded in Luke, it really IS to convey to his listeners “What is God like” and “God is like this: a banquet that’s for anyone”. But that was earlier in his ministry. And this telling in Matthew is very late. And things are heating up. He’s under more pressure, he’s in more danger, and this is NOT a parable about “what is God like”. 

He's begun it, in fact, by saying “the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the realm of God is like this”. But we barely even noticed. Because then he used the same essential narrative as he used before, the one that’s familiar, the disciples know what the message is, they’re ready for “God is like this king” – but he overturned it.

Because God is not like this king. This king is a despot. He’s vicious and violent. Is it any wonder no one wanted to come to his banquet? Heaven only knows what they’ve been putting up with. Though they’re no great prizes themselves, seizing his slaves who were only the messengers and just simply murdering them – it’s horrific. But then in response the King calls in his troops, he rains fire down on them. Massacres them. Burns their entire city. Gathers up for his banquet whoever’s still alive in the end -- and WHO KNOWS how they felt about it but of course they all do what they’re told…. Turn up good and proper, maybe shaking with fear, but they’re there. In their wedding robes. 

Except for that one guy. Who turns up without one. Oh, he was ordered to be there, and he’s there. But he is NOT interested in pandering to this king. This despot, this murderer. 

He turns up without a wedding robe. Because he is not celebrating. Not with this king. He’s not going to fawn and flatter – he’s not going to do the thing. He turns up without a wedding robe ON PURPOSE. It’s an act of resistance. It’s a statement of disgust. 

The whole parable’s been overturned. The surprise, and where the meaning is, is that the whole parable’s been overturned. It’s no longer “what is God like”.

It’s “The kindom of God is like this: it’s what it’s like when people will not overlook injustice or violence or cruelty.” Full stop. And “many are called but few are chosen,” Jesus adds, because that kind of firmness, that kind of solidness of principle, it’s hard.

Especially when in every direction there are stumbling stones. I don’t know anyone this past week who hasn’t been sick at heart, upset and angry and praying praying praying, for the people of Israel and Palestine. For their terrified families around the world, including here. 

But in every direction, stumbling stones. There is no smooth way to travel on with it. There’s no comfortable solidarity, there are no easy alignments. In every direction there are stumbling stones of current and historic injustice and violence and cruelty that defy – or should defy – kneejerk rhetoric or unilateral one-sidedness. 

In our parable, the man with no wedding robe can’t countenance – and will not pretend to countenance – the despotism of a king who orders his troops to rain down fire. But he also hasn’t participated, that man with no wedding robe, in the people’s rage-fueled murder of those slaves who were only the messengers. We know that because he wasn’t killed in the king’s retaliation.

In Israel and Palestine, there are stumbling stones of current and historic injustice and violence and cruelty in every direction. Our reactivity needs care. It needs nuance. But as Christians, our faithful response doesn’t. We have the clarity of this of this parable. The kindom of God is like this: where there is injustice or violence or cruelty, we stand up and we stand between and we pray and we pray and we pray for peace. Amen.