Sunday, October 12, 2014

In the Presence of?

Matthew 22:1-14 (29)

1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again 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.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then 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.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 23 (KJV)

1The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The stores have already started selling Christmas. One can walk past aisle after aisle of costumes: princesses, pirates, warriors, and witches and begin to see the elves and evergreens that have come to characterize the season leading up to December 25th.

Two months out, and already the powers of advertisement and commerce are working to grab out attention, to ask us to choose sides, telling us that if we want to be the special ones who have exactly the right stuff, we have to come to them. As we approach Thanksgiving, their voices will intensify, urging us to trade sleep and time with family for a discount on whatever device the marketing firms have decided to lead us to this season.

Even more prevalent this time of year, as we approach Election Day, are voices of spokespeople and politicians. Asking for us to support their campaigns, to buy their rhetoric, to put our name on their list, because they will be the ones to guide us into a new age of right values and responsible action.

The commercial jingles and the political soundbites whirl dizzyingly around our minds, leaving us disoriented and numb, waiting for the flashiest or the loudest voice to carry us to the only place we can see to go.

Perhaps it was always this way, or perhaps something has changed in our lifetime and things will be this way forever. After all, this is the way the world is, we are separated into our economic brackets, organized into our political parties, divided into our denominational loyalties. It's not practical to try and shift too far from that reality.

We are bound up in affiliations and categories and manufactured wants.

But what if...

What if instead of letting party lines and brand loyalty guide us...

"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want."

The dominant culture may be pulling us apart. We may find shouting voices use fear to control our perception of the world. The tiny, flickering, differences between us might be stoked into sources of infernal conflict.

In a culture that prefers to be ruled by fear and division, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want," brings us together and surrounds us with the comfort of centuries of faith and tradition. Rather than focusing on everything that could go wrong, every reason to be afraid, both trivial and substantial, we are invited to imagine how God will bring us together. Instead of the scarcity we have learned throughout our lives, we are given permission to trust in God's abundance: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters."

Green pastures and still waters feed us in a very different way than the calls to action to which we have grown so accustomed. With the LORD as our shepherd, we don't have to scrounge for weeds in the wilderness or hoard every drop of water. We do not even have to seek them for ourselves, because God guides us to where we need to be, providing for us and the rest of his flock at each stage in the journey.

So why is this reality one we experience through metaphor and faith when we can imagine a world where we experience it through our senses? Would not the Psalm 23 life free us to live faithfully, justly, and lovingly? What hold does the dominant reality have on us that we only turn to this Psalm in trouble?

We've turned to this Psalm for comfort for more than four hundred years, going back the the scholars and poets of the King James Version. Before that we sought the same poem in different translations for thousands of years going back to David's lyre and the breath of the Holy Spirit. We need it's comfort most when our world is spinning out of our control, when a loved one is in surgery, when we are wracked with fear in a dark parking lot, when we confront our own mortality at a graveside. We turn to this Psalm when we need the comfort that God is control, and that God loves us faithfully.

That's the cost of a Psalm 23 life: we must abandon the illusion that we are in control and submit to the LORD. Our broken souls struggle to make that leap, and we seek to serve ourselves, and the dominant image of the world becomes skewed toward fear. 

Perhaps that’s why, in our Gospel lesson this morning, those who had been invited to the King’s Wedding banquet reacted the way they did to the slaves call to come to the feast. I think our tendency, when we hear someone talk about the kingdom of heaven or about submitted to the sovereignty of God, is to ignore them in favor of  - quote - more important things - unquote. We can control our farms and businesses, or at least we think we can. We certainly have more of an impact on them than we do on the joyful feast of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes, though, our resistance is more severe. The history of Israel is full of prophets who were killed for telling the truth, for imagining a different world than the one earthly kings tried to rule. As God’s people expanded to include the church, the violent response to the servants of God also grew. Christians have made more martyrs of each other than all the foreign persecutions we could imagine. All because we wanted to hold on to the illusion that this world and our lives are ours to control. Our culture is dominated by Christianity, and yet our control-hungry souls have taken us away from the justice and freedom that is imaginatively tangible in “The LORD is my shepherd.”

Left to our own ideas, we sheep would be truly lost. We are not, however, left to the devising of our broken souls. God lovingly, faithfully, brings us back into the fold. "He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God rescues us and renews our spirits, and we know that we are not lost. Commercials may tell us that we are lost without a particular product, political ads may tell us that we are lost if the election goes the wrong way, but as people of the book we know that those are manufactured crises, they may pull at us for a moment, but God holds us closer, leading us in the paths of righteousness not for our own sake, but for the sake of God’s holy name.

Lest we believe that this psalm is just some naive fairy tale, we are shown that "Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of new orientation." "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." There are things in this world that will cause us to struggle, and we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. One paraphrase of this psalm wrote this line as "when I crawl through valley of the shadow of cancer." That makes it hit home for a lot of us for whom cancer and the stale air of hospitals are the image we have of loss and grief.

Yet we have comfort even in those dark places that God is with us and guides our steps. God brings us from the green pastures and still waters to the valley of the shadow of death, and from there we are gathered in to the table. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.”

Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet from the second half today’s Matthew reading does not specify if the wedding feast was a table or a buffet. it only tells us that the slaves were sent out into the main streets to gather and invite everyone they could find, the good and the bad.

That almost certainly means that enemies were both invited. If those same slaves were sent out today in the city of Lowell, they’re probably invite republicans and democrats, duke fans and carolina fans, feuding families whose stories have been lost in memory and only the fight remains, and every kind of division that contemporary culture can thrust upon us.

Perhaps one of them knew that his enemies would be there, and therefore did not dress appropriately for the occasion, accepting the invitation, but not the overwhelmingly inclusive grace that accompanied it.

I’m not satisfied with that interpretation though. One of the lunch bunch folks pointed out that going from the radical invitation to throwing the guy out just for not meeting the dress code seemed uncharacteristically cruel of God. Where’s the grace we have come to know and need from God? Where is the assurance of Psalm 23? When I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing to teeth, do we still fear no evil? Is God still with us?

One of the ways to get new richness out of a familiar parable is to change the cast. The obvious interpretation of this parable is that God is the king, the feast is in honor of the Son, Jesus, and the feast is the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of heaven is like a feast, he said it’s like a king who gave a wedding feast. Perhaps then, we can recast the friend who lacked a wedding robe. Perhaps in the hurry to invite the good and the bad, one person was not told about the dress code, or didn’t have time to go home and get their own.

Perhaps the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ saw someone who was not properly dressed and loved him enough that he gave him his own cloak, and then he was cast out from the party. when I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, perhaps Jesus has been there too, and so we still need fear no evil. For thou art with me. comforting us, like a good shepherd, with thy rod and thy staff. bringing us back into table fellowship with both the good and the bad, setting a table before us in the presence of our enemies.

Because the enemies are seated at the table too, and a place is prepared for them as well as for us. God loves us faithfully enough to seek us and protect us in the valley of the shadow of death. God also loves them enough to offer his own wedding robe to them when they are unprepared. God loves us faithfully, but not exclusively. 

One of the reasons that we love this Psalm so much, and one of the reasons we read it from King James today instead of the New Revised Standard Version, which is the pew bible, is the NRSV translates the line, “my cup runneth over” as “my cup is filled to the brim.” I like the NRSV, i grew up with it, it’s a scholarly and faithful translation. But my cup is not filled to the brim, my cup runneth over.

We are given an overwhelming abundance of grace, an overwhelming invitation to the table. So are they. Their cup also runneth over. But we’re not paying attention to who is served what, or when, or why. For our cup runneth over, and we are seated at table with God.

So it’s an opportunity to step out into the world. With all the whirling voices of commercialism and politics and say “Yeah, there’s this stuff, and yeah, there’s this other stuff. But the LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want”

We don’t have to be divided into any camp for long. For we all come together around cups that runneth over, around a table that is prepare before us in the presence of mine enemies, and in the presence of theirs. For the table is big enough for all, and Christ gives us a wedding robe when we’re not prepared for the feast.

Because we’re not going to be well enough prepared. There’s always something new. But when we break free of the bonds of the dominant culture fo commercialism and conflict tells us…

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

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