Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wearing Authority

Scripture portions mentioned here are Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14.

Thank God, we have just 22 more days of campaigning to endure. I even imagine God saying, “For heaven’s sake, get this over with!”

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” Thinking back to the primaries, many felt called. In the end, just one gets elected. One is found to be the best fit to wear the presidency of this nation. His oppponent will be rather like the fellow in our parable: not vested, not wearing the mantle of this authority.

And that one will, at least for a while, be speechless. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea at this juncture if both candidates and their campaigns went speechless. Aren’t they both repeating themselves a lot?

So into the outer darkness will one of our candidates go, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Exactly where his opponent’s campaign has suggested he belongs, and have done their darnedest to send him.

What’s missing in all this distressing, disturbing, predictable campaign behavior is anything more than a passing hint that one’s opponent has been working, and will be working, for the best interests of the very same nation, putting his shoulder to the same wheel of the same general good that will be so very challenging to achieve that the two parties are going to need each other to do it. The purpose of campaigning is to convince people that one’s opponent isn’t bound to the best interests of this country, isn’t a respected member of the same Senate, doesn’t really mean it at the start of the debate when that apparently warm handshake and grip of the arm gets given.

It’s a sharp contrast we hear in St. Paul’s op ed piece today, written for the Phillipian Times Sentinel, back when that community was feeling the tension between two bearers of authority in Philippi, two women named Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know what they were divided over. The issues have been lost, across the centuries. It’s important to notice that women were in the forefront of the early Church. Commentators say that Paul admires and respects them both, because he names them both. Paul sometimes fails to name Christian authorities whom he does not admire or respect. St. Paul sometimes uses the “that one” approach. But not here.

As he handles their controversy, he first speaks to the unity of the community at Philippi, calling them (regardless of which leader they like or agree with) “my joy and crown”. And he reminds his beloved people of the great power they have to stand firm in the Lord Jesus, their unity and their peace. If they will practice that skill of standing firm, it will help Euodia and Syntyche to find their unity. The people can hold their leaders to a worthy standard in this way, by their own behavior.

Paul keeps to himself any opinion he has about their controversy. He affirms them both as trusted colleagues who have struggled beside him in the work of the gospel, and they are part of a yet larger team of co-workers who all have in common the general good of the community.

Above the tensions and frustrations that they would talk about at the water cooler, Paul summons the people to remember whose they are, that their names have been written by God in the book of life. Feel the privilege in which you stand, he reminds them. Rejoice, and show a generous spirit to everyone. (That’s a better translation than “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”) Show a generous spirit.

God is nearer to you than breath itself, so for heaven’s sake pray, and pray thankfully, and you’ll find that the peace of God will be your steadying power.

Then he advises them how to pay attention in times of turmoil. These ought to be requirements of every candidate for public office, and their campaign staffs. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in the service of the Christ, and the God of peace will be with you.”

That would be putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, in Gospel language. Since we’re not a theocracy, and not franchised as a Christian nation, let’s say it differently: A candidate keeping his campaign positive and respectful will, in the eyes of the people, wear the mantle of highest public service— and so long as we the people value and respect the unity we have as citizens of one nation indivisible, we will hold our candidates to worthy standards, by our own behavior.

Speaking of wearing things, what’s up with that robe in our Gospel parable today? That poor fellow didn’t get up that morning saying, “I think I’ll go to a wedding banquet today.” He was among the rank and file from Main Street who got persuaded to fill that hall. How could any of the guests be expected, under those conditions, to have the right clothes on?

Here’s a story rather like last Sunday’s. That one was about a landowner, his vineyard, and his decision to put it under new management when his tenants broke the terms of their lease and broke into open revolt by murdering the owner’s son when he came to gather his father’s share of the produce.

That story was once a simple parable that became, in Matthew’s hands, a fullblown allegory telling the salvation history of the people of God. The same is true of this one.

Hear today’s story in its simpler earlier form in Luke’s Gospel. There it’s not a wedding feast, not a king throwing it for his son, no punitive military action to punish the invited guests who refused to attend. All that is because Luke wasn’t trying to use the story the way Matthew does, to tell the whole nine yards of how God called Israel to sit at table with him (we heard that summons in the ancient text of Isaiah today), how Israel refused, how Israel’s great capital Jerusalem was destroyed in retribution, and how God opened the banquet hall of his kingdom to all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, bad and good alike. Whew! What a lot to squeeze into fifteen verses.

In this kind of story, a humble parable having become an ambitious allegory, everything stands for something, each detail symbolizes something bigger than itself.

Matthew’s first hearers knew it when they heard it: that wedding robe is the plain white linen baptismal garment, the very kind each of them had worn when lowered into the river, the lake, the sea, the stream where it happened that they had put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and where their names were written in the book of life.

And they heard Matthew driving home his point: Christians have been unexpectedly included in the salvation history of Israel. It was by grace, by God’s generous spirit that the kingdom of heaven had been thrown open to them too—but they may not presume on that grace. It is not enough to accept the invitation and then do nothing more than just show up for a free meal. To be part of the salvation history of God, one must wear the mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.

That’s the meaning of the robe. At many places in the New Testament, conversion of life is pictured as putting on new clothes. Not designer suits, no. More like the undergarment that Jesus stripped down to at the last supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples. Which I am meant to remember every time I put on this simple shift that I wear in worship.

And it’s all about the kingdom of heaven, this story that Jesus tells, with Matthew’s help. The kingdom of heaven starts with the generous gift of a king for his son, a love so unbounded that it wants to embrace all. And the kingdom of heaven comes on earth, God’s will gets done on earth as in heaven, when the rank and file of Main Street, you and I, put on the Lord Jesus Christ as our way of being in the world.

What will this require? What will this empower?

That generous spirit that Paul expects, the spirit that sees the best in all, especially in our opponents and in our adversities. The generous spirit that knows when it’s time to be renewed in prayer and grounded in peace. The commitment to unity and community, the skill of standing firm in the Lord, that will express itself in generous stewardship even in times likes these, especially in times like these. And the freedom to rejoice.

And all the vows of our Baptism, calling for justice to roll down through us like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That was Luke’s purpose in telling the banquet story: In his version, when all the proper guests make their excuses and cannot come, it is the poor,the crippled, the blind, and the lame who are gathered into that banquet hall. That’s Luke’s way of preaching the sermon Matthew sets out to preach: To be in Christ is to wear a mantle of faith showing itself in service and a generous spirit.