Save the Date! (sermon 10/12/14)

 

save_the_date

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. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:1-14

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A while back, I officiated the marriage of an old friend in Columbus – she was actually a former employee of my architectural firm, and I was so pleased and honored to perform the wedding when she eventually asked me to. But the very first notice I had about the upcoming wedding was actually a couple of months before that, when I got an envelope in the mail, and when I opened it, there was a pretty good-sized refrigerator magnet, that had in bold letters, “Save the Date!” along with their names, and the date and place of the wedding. It was a “pre-invitation,” something less formal than the actual invitation that would eventually would show up. I’d never received a “pre-invitation” to a wedding before, but as I’ve been talking to people about it, I guess that’s a fairly common thing that couples do now. Who knew?

Well, while I didn’t know that people were sending out pre-invitations to weddings, and banquets, and parties these days, I did know that to do so was fairly common in Jesus’ time, and that’s what had happened in this parable from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today. In the parable, a king was throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he had apparently sent out “pre-invitations” to his guests. And when the time for the banquet drew near, he sent his servants out to his guests as a second announcement, the formal announcement, that now it was time to come to the banquet. As we heard, the first group of guests ignored the formal summons. They even killed some of the servants sent out. This has some similarity to the parable about the tenants of the vineyard we talked about last week. And we heard how the king ordered his servants to go out into the streets – the words the king uses denotes going out to the most remote parts of the land – and to drag in replacement guests. He’s determined that this banquet is going to go on.

Of course, very similarly to the parable we heard last week, the king here represents God, and the servants he sent out to the invited guests are the prophets that God sent to the people to call them to the banquet, the great eternal kingdom of God, and the prophets aren’t listened to. So God makes different plans and calls completely different people from those originally invited to come into the banquet. Just like last week’s parable, it isn’t hard to understand how this parable has been used over the centuries to further anti-Semitic viewpoints: the Jews were those people who didn’t listen to God, and who hurt God’s messengers, and who God got mad at, so now it’s us Gentiles who are *really* God’s chosen people these days. But the fact remains, Jesus himself was a devoted, observant Jew. None of his teachings took away from that fact; in fact Jesus never renounced his Jewish faith and never told anyone else to do so, either. To Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with being a Jew; and he shows that a person can be a Jew and also be perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teachings. But over the past 2,000 years, we Christians have had a really dreadful record of persecution and discrimination against Jewish people, partly as a result of interpreting the Jews as the unworthy first guests that Jesus talks about.

But listen to Jesus’ actual words in the parable. What are the people who refused to attend the banquet more focused on? Different religious views? No. Jesus says one went to his farm, another went to his business. They’re more concerned about their own financial self-interests than in fulfilling their king’s wishes. In Luke’s version of this parable, the reasons that the guests give make this point even more explicit. Based on that, couldn’t we get the message that Jesus wasn’t picking on the Jews, but rather, was issuing a warning to anyone who would put their own self-interests, and particularly their own financial self-interests, ahead of fulfilling God’s will? Could we draw out of this that those are the people who are considered “unworthy,” to use the language in the parable?

Another interesting thing about this story is how all the new guests – the “good and the bad,” according to Jesus – come to the banquet, and everything’s going just great, and everyone is welcome – except for one of the guests who’s found to not be wearing a special celebratory wedding garment – he’s underdressed, unprepared for the occasion, he hasn’t lived up to the king’s expectations of him in the invitation. What’s Jesus trying to teach with this twist in the story? Maybe the point here for us is that even though these guests weren’t invited due to any particular merit of their own – they just happened to be standing around when the king’s servants were rounding up replacements – there still needs to be some kind of follow-through action on their part, out of gratitude for having been brought into the banquet. If all we do is just show up for the fun and the free food, we’ve missed the point. We’re just looking for a free ride without any obligation or responsibility to do anything, or change anything in our lives in order to be God’s agents of change and love in the world if it comes at some cost to us. The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that “cheap grace.” [Wow – my Lutheran seminary will be so proud of me; I managed to slip a reference to Bonhoeffer into two consecutive Presbyterian sermons. Maybe they’ll send me a free T shirt or something for that.]

I think that Jesus is saying that no matter who we are, or what the pedigree of our invitation into the kingdom of God, we can’t just sit on our hands and rely on the mere fact that God has called us. We can’t keep on living in ways inconsistent with God’s will for us if we can change them. That goes to issues of personal morality, issues of treating others with the same spirit of grace and forgiveness that God extends to us, issues of how we shape our personal lives as followers of Christ. We can’t rest on our laurels or think that we’re in the kingdom of God now, and our actions, our listening to God’s word to us, just don’t matter. Some people have said that perhaps the most significant message that Jesus offered to us through his earthly ministry is to show, through his life and his words, that a faith that pleases God can’t just be head-knowledge. It can’t just be all-receiving, all-the-time, with no giving. They’ve said that perhaps the most significant message from Jesus is that when it comes to our religious faith, we need to put our money where our mouths are – our actions need to reflect what we say we believe.

It’s an important lesson for us as individuals, and for us as the Church, too. Because mostly what God calls us to do, in terms of being prepared and true to our faith, is to reach out to others, extending God’s love and God’s message to them. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone here for me to say that very few of our churches are doing a very good job of that. Our church institutions, by and large, are operating on models that may have worked 100, or 50, or even 30 years ago, but which aren’t working any more. We can’t just blame those people “out there” for the fact that they aren’t a part of the church. Most of these same people say they believe in God, and consider themselves spiritual, but they’ve voted with their minds and their feet, saying that the institutional Church has simply lost relevance to their daily lives and spiritual and emotional needs. Our congregation has a great opportunity right now, in this transitional time, to dig into that issue for ourselves. We have the opportunity to really, really look at where God’s love needs to be extended right here in Auburn, and how God is calling us to help do that. Out of gratitude for being brought to the banquet ourselves, now we need to extend that grace and acceptance to others – because, as we heard in the parable, it doesn’t really go well at all for that poor shlub at the banquet who hadn’t lived up to the king’s expectations. As a congregation, let’s take a long, hard look at how we can live out our gratitude, and to do what our King wants us to be doing. When our King steps into the banquet hall, let’s make sure we’re wearing the king’s wedding garment, and not the emperor’s new clothes.

Thanks be to God.

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Magic Mirror

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When I grew up, a lot of different cities hosted a television show called Romper Room. It always featured an attractive young female teacher of sorts – always Miss So-and-So; when I was that age in the mid-1960s in the Pittsburgh area, the local host was Miss Jayne, or maybe Miss Jan, I can’t quite remember – and maybe a dozen or so preschool-aged children. As far as memory serves, it mostly taught kids simple little games, exercises, and songs that were always centered around teaching the kids to be well-mannered, to be helpful to their parents, and to always walk with good posture, which apparently was considered a major social problem of the time. To help with that, the teacher and the kids would walk around while trying to keep these little, flat-bottomed baskets on top of their heads, while singing, “See me walk so straight and tall; I won’t let my basket fall. Eyes ahead and don’t look down; keep that basket off the ground.” I remember they also did some stretching calisthenics, singing (remember, these were prime Space Race years) “Bend, and stretch; reach for the stars; here comes Jupiter, there goes Mars. Bend, and stretch; reach for the sky, stand on tippy-toes, oh so high…” Watching Romper Room kept us all healthy, socially well-adjusted, and prepared to keep the country free for democracy, all while keeping us out from under our stay-at-home moms’ feet. Of course, they had a full line of merchandise that kids could ask their parents for – those posture baskets, songbooks, different things. One of the parts of the show that always caught my attention was when Miss Whoever would look through her Magic Mirror, right through the television tubes of every preschool child in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and call them out by name – “I see Bobby, and I see Mary, and I see Alex, and I see Susie…” I waited breathlessly each time to see if this day, maybe she caught a glimpse of me through the Magic Mirror, but its superpowers never seemed to reach through the televisions of children with uncommon first names for some reason. Ah well, I’d be a good Do-Bee anyway, it’s what Miss Jayne and the President and Mom would want.

The congregation that I’ve been serving has a small enough Sunday attendance that when we ask for prayer requests during the Prayers of the People, those in attendance will just raise their hand and call out people’s names, and usually a brief explanation of the reason for the request. Thankfully, no one has ever shared that they were asking for prayer for Ethel’s recovery from surgery to remove a hemorrhoid so large that it would be mentioned in the next edition of the Guinness Book. In any case, every Sunday I’ll dutifully jot down the name of the person for whom the prayer of concern or joy was intended, and then during the prayer I’ll mentally collate them and fold their names, more or less list-like, into the prayer in a way that the congregation can briefly consider and pray for each of the people and/or situations. This is absolutely an important part of each service, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t become routine, or worse, that there’s an impression that there’s some sort of Magic Mirror aspect to the prayer – that the Send button for our corporate prayer isn’t actually pushed until I’ve actually mentioned them, by name, in the body of the prayer; and if by chance in the mental sorting process, I accidentally miss a name – something I have, on rare occasion, done – then the prayer didn’t “take” for that person, even though we’ve already vocally lifted up the person for the whole congregation’s consideration just moments before.  Let’s face it: prayer – the amazing, brazen act of conversing, communing with, hearing the transcendent Creator of the cosmos – is an odd activity, pretty much by definition, and thinking about and trying to understand it might be even more odd a task.

I’m not sure who said it – I think it was Anne Lamott, but I’m too lazy to verify that, so I’ll attribute it to her, anyway – but whoever it was said that prayer is a lot less like sitting down and demanding God appear, conjuring up God to have a private, one-on-one conversation with you, and much more like you simply tapping in to a conversation between God and everyone that’s really already and always ongoing, and which is immediately adjacent and accessible to us. For us, entering into prayer is more like picking up the phone on an old-fashioned party line, if you’re ancient enough to actually remember those, or like driving your car up an entry ramp and onto a highway already full of traffic. Our prayer is melded together with everyone else’s prayers; in some mystical way they’re all intertwined and become, in a way, music, where our prayers for others and prayers for ourselves and prayers for all the other pray-ers joining in the song are all one and equal and perfectly in balance. And over, and under, and around, and through it all, is God, penetrating all and hearing all and answering all, and actually becoming part of the song; Bonhoeffer’s cantus firmus,  or maybe just the universe’s most awesome bass line, or something. Actually, Lamott, or whoever, didn’t say all that; I took the core thought and ran with it. There have been many times when I’ve felt that my prayers actually were summoning God into my presence for an individual command performance, and sometimes I’ve felt amazing, wonderful answers to those prayers. But the idea that when we center ourselves and enter into prayer, it’s usually more our entering into that eternal, continuous polyphonous song, has been tremendously helpful to me in my prayer life.

Yesterday, during the Prayers of the People, we prayed for others, trying not to be Magic Mirrorish – for people and situations in dangerous, strange, foreign places like Syria and Egypt and Russia and Zimbabwe and Louisiana; for survivors and families of victims of bus crashes; for a safe and fun time for all at the county fair; for a full recovery for Ethel after her recent surgery. And then, I asked the people there to pray for themselves, in a special way. Borrowing a form of prayer mentioned in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, but tweaking it just a bit, I asked the worshipers to sit upright, but comfortably (Romper Room posture baskets not required), with their arms out in front of them and their palms upward. I asked them to imagine all of their sins, all of their shortcomings, all of the things in their lives that they were ashamed of or struggled with or that were in any way separating them from God and the joyous life God has called us into. I asked them not to think of them abstractly, like a big glop of something in their hands, but to identify each thing, particularly, with specificity. Name them. Anger or hatred that I feel for Joe, or Angela. Worry over a strained relationship with my son, Tim. Anxiousness because I don’t know where next month’s mortgage payment is going to come from, let alone gas money. The agony of watching my father, Sam, slipping further and further into the hell of Alzheimer’s. Whatever. Name each one. Feel the weight, the burden of each one of them, weighing your hands down, lower and lower. And then… still in a state of prayer, turn your palms downward, letting those burdens slide out of your hands. dump them into Christ’s waiting hands. let them all go, even the ones whose familiarity gives you some perverse form of comfort. Let them go. Jesus says come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, not to leave those burdens on you, but to take them away. So let him. Hand them over to him. And then… turn your palms upward. Feel the lightness, the airiness, of those empty hands. Feel them almost float upward in front of you in their lightness. But that’s not all. That’s not enough. Now, ask God to fill that emptiness with God’s very self. Fill every void, every gap, every crevice in your being that those old worries and angers and hatreds had filled before. Feel God in your fingertips, tracing down your arms, racing through your body,  God-beams of grace and mercy and love flowing through you like blood through your arteries. Feel God’s love surrounding you. Hear the cantus firmus, and add your very own life-harmony to it.

It’s a very effective way to meditate and pray. I recommend doing it every so often in your own prayer life. It’s a wonderful way to feel centered, renewed, refreshed, and to feel God’s presence filling you. It’s what all good Do-Bees do. And Miss Jayne would approve.