October 15, 2017

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2017 from Trinity Lutheran Church on Vimeo.

Matthew 22: 1-14
Courtney Smith
Some of you may have noticed my photo in your narthex for the last year, I am
excited to finally be here in person to thank you for your support and prayers over
the last year. In case you don’t know, I served as an ELCA missionary in South Africa
through the Young Adults in Global Mission program.
This text reminds me of weddings in South Africa, because they were such an
important part of my year. In South Africa, I lived in the township of Spruitview – a
multicultural community created under the Apartheid regime to separate black
people from white people. My very first day in my township, my host mom said to
me “get changed, we are going to a wedding.” Not only was I feeling really
awkward moving into my new home, but now I was going to feel really awkward at
this wedding that I was pretty sure I would be crashing.
I was not invited when the invitations were sent out and per US culture, you don’t
show up to a wedding you aren’t invited to, much less to a wedding where you
don’t know anyone. But I was no longer in the US and no one else was concerned
that they didn’t know who I was. I quickly learned that in South Africa, when
someone has a celebration, per cultural traditions, everyone, literally everyone is
invited. It doesn’t matter if you are a friend of the family, a neighbor, or the new
kid in town – you are invited. I felt much like the King’s second guests to his
wedding, the party wasn’t intended for me, but yet I was welcomed anyway to
learn about and partake in the celebrations. In South Africa, when someone can
afford to have a celebration, they throw the party for the whole community. They
include anyone who wants to be part of the event and all are welcomed. It doesn’t
matter who you are, where you come from, or the status you hold.
In this Bible text, it’s more than likely that the King focuses his invitations on those
people of importance. By inviting these more distinguished guests it makes the
King look powerful, important, and respected by those with status. However,
these guests weren’t interested in boosting the Kings image and by turning down
the invitations did quite the opposite and instead disrespected him.
What is a King with no guests at his party? Instead of accepting the humiliation of
having no guests because That would make him look worse, the King turned to the
people on the streets, to those people he originally overlooked: the good, the bad,
and everything in between. It is these ordinary people who came to the King’s
rescue and brought honor to his celebration. In the end, the King didn’t need the
distinguished guests, but rather he needed the less glamorous people right in front
of him to lift him up.
Isn’t this something we all do in one way or another? We think we need to be
friends with the important person at work so we can get ahead in our career,
or we need to be seen walking around with the popular kids at school in order to
be cool. It’s like the rope you probably had to climb up in elementary school gym
class – you keep reaching and reaching, but if you’re anything like me, you didn’t
make it up very far.
Before I left for South Africa, I had all kinds of ideas about what I thought I needed
during my year; things I thought would make me comfortable, things I thought
would make it easier, things I thought would help me – but let me tell you,
planning ahead in this type of situation, never works. This year I had to stop
reaching for what I thought I needed and accept what I had in front of me.
For the past year my community: my host family the Moloto’s, my Spruitview
congregation, my neighbors, my coworkers, and the people I saw every day,
who helped me with everything and showed me the importance of using what is
right in front of me. They showed me that I need only look inside the community
when I needed help and no matter what, someone was always there for me.
In South Africa, community is key. It is a very deeply rooted cultural tradition that
most everyone embodies in one way, shape, or form. The people around me
genuinely cared for me, in ways I never realized. I was known in my community as
the Moloto Daughter, the white girl, and/or the Umlungu – the Zulu word for white
person.
My community was created to segregate out black people and the stigma and
reality of poverty and crime in the townships keeps white people very far away –
even in 2017. Yes, there is crime and poverty, but there is also
culture, hope, and strength. Living in the township allowed me to learn many of
the 11 official languages of South Africa, participate in multi-cultural weddings, and
experience the life of so many people in South Africa. But as the white girl, I was
still an outsider, and in a place where community is everything, people wanted to
take care of and help me; they wanted to show and teach me their ways.
Whenever I needed something, there was always someone there ready to lend a
hand, point me in the right direction, or translate for me.
Three days a week I travelled to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa
head office to work in their nonprofit department called Development Services
where I helped with projects and programming in areas of HIV/AIDS, community
development, gender based violence, income generation, and food security.
To get there, I took 3 to 4 taxis, which were 16 passenger vans that serve as the
unofficial bus system around Southern Africa. These taxis aren’t “classy,” in fact I’d
say 80% of them wouldn’t pass a car inspection and a fair bit of the time I really
feared for my life while riding in them because I thought we would crash or break
down – but they were the cheapest, most accessible way to get me where I
needed to go.
By riding all these taxis on a regular basis, I met people from all over and we
formed a little community of our own. If I missed a day of work, they asked where
I was; when they missed a day of work, I asked where they were. If the taxi driver
wasn’t going to pick me up the passengers would be sure the driver pulled over.
If the driver didn’t understand my American accent when I said “after robot” to
signal getting off at the traffic light, the passengers would translate and be sure I
got off at the right place. It was these common, every day people going about
their normal business, who came to me when I was in need.
Like the King in the parable, we often pass over what is right in front of us for what
we might consider to be higher and mightier, but it’s important to look at the little
things in life and to realize the impact and value they have in our everyday lives.
It is when we lose these elements that we start to realize what is actually
supporting us as we reached higher. Think about it – wouldn’t we all get up the
rope in gym class a lot easier if we raised each other up from the bottom instead of
trying pull ourselves up out of reach?
Maybe we are told to reach for what is beyond us like in gym class, but sometimes,
we might choose to. The last verse in the story reads “For many are invited, but
few are chosen.” The King chose to look past the many in front of him
and only invite those out of his reach. But those who were invited also made a
choice, to not accept the invitation.
Don’t we all make choices to accept or decline invitations?
Aren’t we all invited to stay for tea and coffee after church?
But how many of you choose to accept that invitation?
Speaking of – you should all choose to stay today and talk to me about my year!
What about my community in South Africa– do they not also have the invitation
and ability to choose? Racial tension in South Africa is still very strong as cultures,
races, and people are still very much divided around the country. The fact that I, a
white person, lived in a township was a very big deal because white people do not
go into these areas. Seeing a white person in a township is a rare rare thing;
so much so that when I did see someone my first reaction was “who are you, what
are you doing here?” My community was invited to be part of my life, but not
everyone accepted that invitation.
Along with working at the head office for the Lutheran church in Southern Africa,
I spent two days a week in a preschool in my community where I played with and
loved over 600 children. For my students, I was easily the first, and potentially the
only white person they will ever be friends with – and definitely the only one
who will let them play with my hair the way I did. The kids were excited by my
presence, but that was not a shared emotion among everyone I came in contact
with.
The kids? They loved me.
The taxi drivers? They loved me even more because they wanted to marry me.
But there were some people who I could tell were uncomfortable by my presence.
Some people didn’t want to interact with me or form a relationship, they didn’t
want to talk to me, or sit next to me on the taxi. There was more than one
occasion where I felt hostility from people in the township, at the fact that I was
white.
There were also occasions where white people were concerned that I was hanging
out and living in a township because the stereotype are so ingrained in their
perceptions of these places. Just like the original guests invited by the King, some
people in my community did not accept my invitation and turned me away.
The invitation for community and friendship was always there. I smiled and
greeted everyone, I tried to speak in multiple languages and become a true
member of the community, but not everyone chose to accept that invitation.
Which is perfectly okay. We have these experiences for a reason. We have the
ability to choose for a reason. God gives us the ability to choose. This choice is
possible because of the loving sacrifice of Jesus – that we are forgiven for our sins.
God grants us the opportunity to see what is right in front of us, to recognize it,
and to accept it – or to overlook it and learn a lesson later, because even if the
decision isn’t the one He wanted us to make, we are still forgiven. But, when we
overlook what is right in front of us, we miss out on all kinds of opportunities. Had
the King continued to glance over the commoners in front of him, he never would
have had party guests for his wedding and would have been the laughing stock of
the land.
Had I glanced over the relationships of my family and my community,
I never would have enjoyed and learned so much during my time in South Africa.
We are all called to be children of God.
We are all called to do His work and to share His love.
But we also have the ability to choose,
and that my brothers and sisters, is something to be thankful for.
Take the time to look at what is right in front of you, to accept those invitations,
and choose to live as God asks us to: as friends of tax collectors, washers of feet,
and teachers of God’s unfailing love.
I thank you for choosing to support the Young Adults in Global Mission program
and for helping provide this invitation
to grow, learn, and love in God’s name
to young adults around the country.
Thank you for your financial support,
your love, your prayers, and your choices.