Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sermon October 12, 2014

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Proper 23

Matthew 22:1-24

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

      Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  So many times when we read Bible passages we have to exert ourselves in order to understand what is being said.  After all, the cultural references of an agrarian society of two thousand years ago are very different from ours today.  Things such as sheaves of grain, vineyards, and the ways of sheep and shepherds aren’t part of everyday reality for most of us.  But the context of today’s passage isn’t as great a stretch for us.  Even if wedding customs have changed a great deal over two millennia, we can appreciate that a wedding banquet is an important event indeed, particularly a wedding banquet given by a king for his son.
            We can appreciate the trouble someone goes to when holding a wedding reception.  When our daughter was married almost four years ago, my husband and I didn’t kill any oxen or fat calves for the dinner. But like most of you who have planned a wedding for a daughter, we went to considerable expense and trouble to make sure our guests would be well fed.  We hired a hall and caterers and arranged for beautiful flowers and an enormous and elaborate cake.  With our daughter and prospective son-in-law, we spent a great deal of time putting together a guest list and making suitable seating arrangements.  All of us would have been devastated if too many reply cards came back marked “will not attend,” or worse, if we received no reply at all.
            So now envision the king in Jesus’ parable.  It is most certainly rude to blow off a wedding invitation from a friend or a relative.  It’s absolutely unthinkable to blow off a wedding invitation from a king.  Worse, some of the invited guests mistreated or even killed the bearers of the king’s invitations.  Kings in those days could do things most of them could never do today. This king retaliated by killing the scorners in return.  This affair is far more serious than  a breach of etiquette, however unfortunate such a breach might be. I think it might also be a good thing to remember that this is a parable and not an account of an actual wedding  banquet.
            We are meant to understand the characters in this parable to have cosmic significance.  As you might imagine, the king represents God.  The son represents Jesus.  The first invited guests are intended to be seen as the nation of Israel. The first slaves who were killed by them are intended to stand for the Hebrew prophets.  The group of slaves sent out to the highways and byways to find substitute guests are the later missionaries.  Finally, the new wedding guests, the ones who actually show up, are meant to be seen as the people who will come to follow Jesus.
            At this point I feel compelled to say a word about what is NOT going on here.  This story should most definitely not be understood as a condemnation of Israel.  Scholars assert that this parable doesn’t excuse an attitude of smugness by Christian readers.  Scholars likewise maintain that the parable is most definitely NOT espousing anti-Judaism.  Jesus makes very clear that the guests who actually attend the wedding banquet are not the “good” guests, as opposed to the “bad” ones who turned down the king’s invitation.  When the last group of slaves went out to the streets to find guests, Jesus tells us quite clearly that they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”
            Badness, however one defines it, isn’t a reason for exclusion from the party.  Yet we have the curious instance of the man whom the king orders to be thrown out.  The king notices that one man isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  When the king asks the man why he isn’t wearing a wedding robe, the man offers no answer.  The king tells his attendants “to bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Now if you’ve ever shown up for a party and found you weren’t wearing quite the right outfit—and many of us have--you might be able to identify with the man without the wedding robe.
            The unnamed man has committed an offense, but one that isn’t a mere dress code violation.  The wedding robe isn’t just a wedding robe, just like the king in this parable isn’t just a king, but a symbol for God.  The lack of a wedding robe is more than the simple failure to prepare properly to attend a wedding, though it is indeed that too.  There is an association in scripture that links a change of clothing with conversion. Galatians 3:27 contains such a reference.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
            Also, the original disciples hearing this parable would have been familiar with the Jewish concept of kavanah.  Kavanah refers to the mindset required for the performing of Jewish rituals or for the praying of Jewish prayers.  Kavanah is the appropriate turning of the heart and mind and soul to God, a prerequisite for worship.  Just as an aside, I have to wonder if it was intentional on the part of the novelist Jan Karon that the name of the beloved priest in her Mitford series is Timothy Kavanagh.  Father Tim most certainly has his heart and mind and soul turned to God most of the time. 
            So it’s not enough, the parable tells us, just to show up at the feast.  It’s not enough just to show up at synagogue services or for church services.  We need to come properly dressed, metaphorically speaking, with our hearts and minds and souls disposed to worship God. We understand that.  However, that might still leave you feeling just a bit awkward, because not everyone comes to church exactly in a spirit of kavanah.  We often arrive rushed, stressed, and with our mind on the argument we just had with our spouse or with the teenager who refused to get up this morning.  It happens, even to the clergy sometimes.  We’re living life, not a parable.
            What I think would be a good thing for us to do at this point is to go back a few lines earlier in the parable and consider something else that the story might be saying to us as a church.  Remember that the slaves went out and “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”  Does this look to you like the mission of our church? By our church I mean both the Episcopal Church in general and St. John’s in particular.  I can think of many strategies for church growth that involve recruiting young families into congregations.  Nobody disputes that recruiting young families is a good thing.  It is indeed a good and joyful thing to be a community that forms young souls in the faith. 
But have you often—or ever, for that matter—heard of strategies to fill our pews with other people whom life has already formed in ways that seem less than desirable?  Do we go out and seek homeless people, people who’ve served time in prison, or people who are suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol?  We have programs for these populations. They all fall under the heading of “outreach.”  The word “out” speaks volumes about our approach. I invite you to join me in thinking about just whom we invite IN to our Eucharistic feast every Sunday.  The king of the parable had his slaves gather ALL they found, the good AND the bad, to the wedding banquet.  We might consider how we might do the same.
We also might want to consider whose church this is.  St. John’s isn’t our church.  St. John’s is God’s church.  Our weekly eucharist is God’s to share, not ours.  Every Sunday the King holds a wedding banquet for his son. All may attend, good and bad, however we define those terms.  There is no dress code, save that we be clothed in Christ.  And because we live in a real world and not in the parable, we might come late or grumpy or both.  The important thing is that we’ve come, come to the wedding banquet that we know as Eucharist.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Advent 4A, December 22, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Here we are, this Sunday morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Already.  While it seems like Thanksgiving was just yesterday, Christmas really is just three days away.  When we were children, this might have been a time of giddy anticipation.  Even if our families weren’t well off materially, there was still the expectation of something extra, something in the way of baked goods or presents or parties that made Christmastime special for us.  We see the same joyful expectation in the faces of our young friends and family.
For those of us of riper years, the holiday is a bit more complicated.  We’re haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past, frazzled by the preparations of Christmas present, and worried about the Christmases yet to come.  Thanks to the influences of Norman Rockwell, Hallmark, consumer capitalism, and Martha Stewart, we have high expectations of our Christmas holiday.  The d├ęcor should be perfect, the food uniformly delicious—no burnt cookies in this picture.  The presents should be plentiful and the atmosphere harmonious.
            Of all our expectations for holiday perfection, the one about family harmony is the one most fraught with worry.  Past Christmases may have lacked something in this area.  Too many of us can remember a Christmas dinner that some relative or another left in the middle because they were unable to deal with something that someone said or did at the dinner table.   Maybe we were even the person who left, or the one who provoked the departure.  It’s hard to remember how the trouble got started.  The details don’t matter; it’s the sense of uneasiness that’s engraved in our memory.  It probably doesn’t help that we are in literally the darkest days of the year, just before the days start to lengthen again.
            Going into this Christmas, less than pleasant memories are close at hand, and we’re uneasy.  We’re hoping that great-aunt Mary doesn’t comment on our daughter’s newest piercings or the tattoos that cover our son’s entire left forearm.  We’re praying that granddad doesn’t ask our sister’s son when he’s going to bring a girlfriend home to meet the family, because our nephew has recently confided that he’s gay but isn’t ready to be out to the whole family.  We’re holding our collective breaths that Uncle Al doesn’t drop by while our cousin’s here with her new boyfriend, because the boyfriend happens to be Muslim, and Al can’t be depended on to keep his prejudice to himself.  We might be worried about the influence of alcohol on all of the above.
            As if we don’t have enough on our minds, there are concerns beyond this Christmas.  Looking ahead to next year, we fear that by next Christmas Grandma won’t be with us any longer.  Her congestive heart failure is nearing the end stage.  More immediately, we know that there will be layoffs at work early in the new year.  We made it through the last round, but the rumors have been flying that our department will be the next to be hit.  The bills will still roll in even if the paychecks dry up.  We’re not sure how the festivities and the presents will be paid for.
            Odds are that one or more of the aforementioned worries are your worries too.  We’re wishing we could have the perfect Christmas, with plenty of food and presents, and all of the family present and able to put aside their issues and worries at least for a day.  Isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be?  Wasn’t that was what Christmas was like in the good old days? 
            It depends on whose good old days we’re talking about.  If we go back to the very oldest days, the very beginning of Christmas, the very first Christmas, we don’t find much comfort at all.  We think our families have troubles!  Think about what’s going on in the Gospel reading for today.  Really think about what’s going on here.  It’s a mess of epic proportions. 
            Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married.  In their cultural context, an engagement meant more than a ring on prospective bride’s finger and a hefty deposit on a reception hall.  The commitment was sealed; all that was lacking was for the couple to share a home.  Imagine, then, that Mary is found to be pregnant, and that Joseph is not the father.  That’s pretty scandalous right there.  Actually it’s more than scandalous.  Such a pregnancy would have been evidence of Mary’s unfaithfulness, and would have been a capital offense in first century Palestine.  Unfaithful women in that time and place could be stoned to death.  That Mary is supposed to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit doesn’t make things any better.  Mary’s parents must have been beside themselves.  Joseph would have been well within his rights to call off the engagement in a public manner that would expose Mary to disgrace at best and possibly even to death by stoning.
            If you read the geneology in the very first verses of Matthew, you’ll find that Joseph marrying an already pregnant Mary wouldn’t be the first marital irregularity in this family.  In the sixth verse of chapter one, Matthew states that “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.”  Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  Bathsheba was Uriah’s wife, but David was so infatuated with her that he conceived a child with her and then sent Uriah off to be killed in battle so that Uriah would never discover that the child wasn’t his.  Matthew makes no secret that Joseph’s—and by adoption, Jesus’s—family history has a dark chapter indeed.
            Now let’s return to Joseph and the dilemma he faces.  Joseph was a compassionate man, and he was loath to hurt Mary.  He decided not to deal with her harshly but planned instead to “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew tells us.  Before he could act on his intention, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  In case we’re not as convinced as Joseph was, Matthew further tells us “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
            In these few verses, Matthew gives us two names for our consideration, and they are important names indeed.  First, the angel tells Joseph that he and Mary are to name the child Jesus.  Now Jesus—or Yeshua in Hebrew—was a very common name at that time.  The child doesn’t get a name that stands out, but an ordinary name that makes him at least by name like everyone else.  In our time, Jesus might well have been named John Doe.  Second, the prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew quotes says that the son born to the virgin is to be named Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.”  The baby Jesus is to be at the same time totally ordinary, yet at the same time is to be God with us.
            So what then does our reading from Matthew’s gospel say to us today, the twenty-second of December in the year of our Lord 2013?  What does Matthew have to say to us as we compare the perfect Christmas we imagine and long for with the Christmas we actually look forward to with both anticipation and considerable concern?
            Matthew’s gospel has abundant good news for us today.  God is coming into the world to present for us literally and in human flesh.  God is coming into the world to be present for us not in idealized circumstances but in a situation that is as broken as any we can imagine.  As Christians we know well about Jesus’ saving us through his death and resurrection.  But God’s saving us through Jesus didn’t begin with the crucifixion.  God’s saving action began right with Jesus’ entry into the world, indeed even before then.
            God didn’t choose to come into the world in the form of the baby born to a powerful family, or a wealthy family, or into a family that was even proper in the world’s eyes.  God didn’t choose to come into the world as anyone who was marked as an extraordinary person with an extraordinary name; Jesus was a common name indeed for a baby boy.  God came into the world as a baby boy who was less than ordinary, questionable as his parentage appeared to be.  God chose to come into the world to be with us in our brokenness, not avoiding it.  Emmanuel means “God is with us,” not with us in perfect lives, but with us in the lives we actually have.  O come O come Emmanuel. Amen.