Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Walking the Walk

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

When I meet monthly with residents of our local nursing homes to celebrate the holy eucharist, I usually read the Gospel for the coming Sunday. It’s often my first encounter with a text I’ll be preaching on, a few days later. Maybe.

But not this time around. I chose instead Paul’s little sermon to the believers at Philippi. In my snap judgment, those frail but courageous sisters and brothers at Williamstown Commons, circled round in their wheelchairs, had been battered enough by life without having to make sense of the raging violence in Matthew’s chilling parable.

Whether I could then avoid it today remained to be seen; but for sure I could bring them a brighter dose of good news through Paul’s message about the peace of God and the God of peace.

At both nursing homes, I can count on the residents wanting to sing a favorite hymn. At Sweet Brook, it’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” At Williamstown Commons, it’s “Amazing Grace.” If all we did at these services were the singing of their one favorite hymn, they’d likely wheel out of that room satisfied that they’d heard and sung good news that day.

Though I always announce the page number in their large-print hymnal (#93 for What a Friend, #4 for Amazing Grace), these folks don’t need the book for these hymns: By and large, they have the words inside them. Whether or not their eyesight lets them read the page, they know the words: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

And on the heels of that hymn, Wednesday, came today’s collect: “We pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

What is amazing about the Christian concept of grace is the omnipresence of this love which we neither deserve (says our Prayer Book catechism) nor recognize (most of the time), nor even desire (said our collect last Sunday) because we are too busy desiring otherwise: desiring stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list we have! What amazing goals! Maybe those are our favorite hymns: What a List We Have… Amazing Goals, How Sweet the Sound that Spends my Soul on Thee…

And along comes our 2015 stewardship appeal with the question, “What do you most need—or most need to let go of—as you walk the path in life?” Each of us is invited to lay stones in the path we’re building here in the center aisle, and let these stones represent your answers to that question.

This living metaphor of an expanding path is meant to take this community into closer communion with God, lead us to the table of new life, then aim us out into the world that needs us to give ourselves to good works. It is a foot path, not a highway; what it requires of us is not to see how fast we can get somewhere and how much we can accomplish, but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving deliberately (and gently, as Paul instructs the Philippians), letting go of worrying our way forward, choosing instead to pay attention to grace. Grace before us, grace behind us. Grace ahead of us to know the way, show the way, and meet us on the way. Grace following us to heal the damage we don’t intend to commit but do, grace to recognize by hindsight the gifts to be grateful for, grace to remember what we’ve learned.

So… what can we learn from Matthew’s little parable from hell? For one thing, never take a passage of the Bible out of its context. Remember that grace is behind us, and requires using our rear-view mirror to recognize it for what it is. Backspace just a verse or two and hear how chapter 21 ends (in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”): “When the religious leaders heard Jesus’s parables, they knew he was aiming his words at them. They wanted to arrest him and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.”

Then today’s portion begins, “Jesus responded by telling still more parables.” He did not back down from the hostility he met. He countered it with a return volley.

This story of the wedding banquet presents his answer—or is it Matthew’s answer? Or is it the early Church’s answer?—to the question, “Who is it who are gathered into the embrace of God’s grace? Who is it who walk in the light and wisdom of God? Who are the enduring people of God faithful to God’s steadfast covenant love?”

The answer given in this tortuous parable is: Not the people who say that they are the heirs of God’s grace and favor, but the people who show that they are, by how they act. Not the ones who talk the talk, but the ones who walk the walk.

The action desired by the king in this story (so we can read the allegory to mean it is the action God wants) is that all should come to the wedding banquet he has set for his Messiah, the anointed one who embodies love and achieves justice by righting the ancient wrong.

Those who were first invited were expected to come because they would have identified themselves as heirs of God’s grace and favor—but they refuse to come, preferring their own busyness as they pursue stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list they have!

And those who finally do come may not yet have appreciated the generous impulse behind the invitation, and so they have not discovered their responsibility to allow grace to shape their generosity. In the language of today’s collect, they are not given to good works.

The fellow who is singled out for not dressing up appears to be made an object lesson—but we scratch our heads and wonder why. Reach for a commentary, and you learn that the proper dress, the wedding robe, stands for the new life of good works which is meant to be our response to the Gospel of grace. I’ll bet that first-century hearers of this story would have instantly thought of the plain white tunic, the simple shift worn by men and women and children when they were baptized.

“How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” asks the king. The only demand made by Jesus, (as it was by John the Baptist before him), is that we must intentionally turn from evil and towards God, from oppression to freedom, from greed to grace, from violence to peace—in order to enter the kingdom of God, repentance is the doorway.

This fellow has slipped- in some other way. It won’t work. To borrow other New Testament language, he has not worn the fine linen of righteous deeds. He is speechless when confronted because, having done no good works, there is nothing, and no one, to speak for him. He has not put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

We really have to work hard, to get the marrow out of the bone in this Gospel. I can’t think of a Gospel I’d rather not have to preach on, ever again.

But in times as violent as ours, let’s not rush to erase the struggles our first-century forebears had as they welcomed the gracious invitation to the wedding banquet while having to navigate a brutal world. So do we.

The central message of this crusty parable, if we can set aside the sputtering rage of conflicting ideologies, is that God invites us to a wedding banquet: this is one of Jesus’s favorite ways to describe the spiritual life and the purpose of religion. To be human is to be invited into the intimate and joyful community of a wedding banquet, where what is expected is intentional delight and love devoted to, and shaped by, that pulsing love at the center of the party, at the head table. Wow! So that’s what church is for!

And while we’re understandably turned off by intimidation (and this parable’s little cup overflows with that), we all can stand a dose of the message that God calls us not just to show up and sing our favorite hymns, but to repent of all those desirings that point our path not towards God but away; and to repent of the collateral damage we do. And freed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, make way for the Spirit to move us to be given to good works, making known a gentleness that this world yearns to see (and so do we), making do with less worry and more of the promised peace of God so that the God of peace may reign on earth.