The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 23A 2020
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Our scriptures this morning are filled with imagery that is at once harsh and bleak, and lavish and lush; that of festival and feast, revelry and bounty, as well as bloodshed and burning wrath, consumption and outer darkness. This picture of a world contrasted is imagery and allegory of God’s invitation to new life, and the disparity of our response to God: the Beloved in whom we rejoice, but who we also reject, often subtly, in the choices, compromises, and allegiances we make; like the Israelites with impatience and short-sightedness, the golden calf of our expectations wins our favor.
Our teachings today are rigorous. But they provide a lens through which to look and better see or discern the variance of our heart with that of God's heart, our desire with God’s desire. The inherent question is: how do we stray from and violate our destiny of love?
God’s work of creative love is ceaseless, the summons to the royal wedding ever arriving in new and unexpected ways. God’s work or will is, to be sure, not static or unmoving, and in this sense, we could say that God changes. As we read in our Old Testament passage, God had a change of heart in response to Moses’s prayer. God would have destroyed his stiff-necked people had Moses not stood in the breach for them (Psalm 106:23). The nature of God is responsive and relational—to be with us and for us—but, too, God’s being is absolute with certain expectation.
The parable of the Wedding Feast is indeed a story about “great expectations,” not only that of the king who gives a wedding banquet for his son, but of the king’s invited guests. An invitation to the royal nuptials has been issued, but unexpectedly to everyone—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to which an appropriate and timely response is expected—from everyone.
Do we even answer or are we too preoccupied? Will we shrug off the momentous occasion, or take care to don the wedding robes lest we are bound and thrown into the outer darkness?
There is no side-stepping the crux of the parable: God has a claim upon our lives; and so, God is not only the hoped-for solution but the problem itself. Our God-given freedom that we so cherish—and God’s divine sovereignty and final authority—is the razor’s edge upon which we walk through life and faith.
This challenging gospel is part of a life-and-death dispute that has already begun between Jesus and the temple authorities, chapters-long in Matthew, which will only intensify and build to the crescendo of the Cross. Time is short, and the stakes are high.
Jesus, who sees through us with “terrible clarity” (Frederick Buechner) is unequivocal in casting prophetic judgment upon the temple authorities: they have been unreceptive to God’s prophets, and to God’s son, Jesus. Their hearts are hardened and judgmental, divided from truth by their own expectations, assumptions, and pretense. Simply, they have refused God’s invitation to the wedding feast of his Son.
We must remember that Jesus’s indictment of the scribes and Pharisees is not a wholesale condemnation of the Jewish faith—Jesus himself was an observant and faithful Jew—but rather denunciation of legalism, hypocrisy, willfulness, and self-righteousness, whether in the temple, in our hearts, or in the church. I think it’s also helpful to remember that Matthew’s gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (70CE). Amidst the smoldering memories of political and religious chaos, the struggling Jewish-Christian community sought to keep the faith. But things were not at all as Jesus’s followers expected them to be.
And yet from the ashes of this parable rises the good news of radical hope: that in the most unexpected and improbable places, such as in Matthew’s community, in the alienated torn places of our own hearts, in the dark ashy corners of our dispirited souls, God is searching—continually—for anyone who will answer the call to new life: many are called—all are called—but who will choose, and who is chosen?
Great encouragement is also found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, from which we have been reading the last several weeks. However, I wasn’t exactly encouraged, maybe even a little discouraged, when I first read our passage for today; because when I reflected upon Paul’s exhortation to rejoice always, I thought: but I don’t! not always anyway; and when he says don’t worry about anything, I thought: but I do!— sometimes about everything! Oh dear. But as Jesus says later in Matthew, and St. Paul reiterates in his own words (Romans 7:15): the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).
Our epistle of course beckons the Christian to much more than a don’t-worry-be-happy kind of positive thinking. Writing from his prison cell, Paul urges the divided community and church at Philippi to press on—to press on in things true, noble, authentic, and gracious, and to pray and meditate upon Christ’s joy. Much has been written about Christian joy as a fruit of the Spirit that is present even during crisis. Joy is not dependent upon external circumstances, as is more ephemeral happiness, because joy is foundational to God’s in-the-beginning creation. Perhaps joy is the gift of God’s perspective: and God saw that it was good. St. Teresa of Calcutta considered that joy is the net of love by which souls are caught. In my own prayer, I’ve come to experience joy as a balm—an oil of deep gladness—that seeps into the cracks of my heart—Jesus’s own deep-down-the-heart-of-things joy—a sealing and anointing.
I know for myself that it’s easy to lose sight of joy in the wear and tear of life, and to “forget” God. Alas, I cease to pray without ceasing. But when we gather together as we have this morning, we do so in order to cease forgetting, and to remember, that Christ stands in the breach for us. And while we “come as we are” to the Lord, to the table, the call ever ongoing—an invitation we Episcopalians issue to others—welcome, come as you are!—God’s ultimate call is not to remain as we are but to be transformed.
True conversion comes at the great cost of bringing our hearts before the cross to finish God’s salvation (Hymn 598), and of our accountability to that becoming in Christ. The One we will stand before on the day of judgment sees with “terrible clarity” the verdicts we have pronounced upon others, as well as judgments cast upon us. But Jesus is also the judge whose love and mercy is boundless. To quote Frederick Buechner, Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy. To this end, Jesus’ love is fierce, the fire of his love cleansing the temple of our hearts of anything that diminishes our wholeness in God.
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Are we ready? Are we clothed in Christ’s love? Do we bring with us the gifts of the Spirit— gentleness, joy, humility, and thanksgiving? Have we put on the wedding robes of new life?
For the Lord is near, the kingdom at hand, and the wedding is now, even this very moment.