Year A — The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Nov. 2, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 3:7-17
Several “quick hitters” that I note in this passage:

  • Joshua had a pretty bad case of nerves about taking over for Moses; after all, who wants to bat clean-up after Babe Ruth? Who wants to coach football at Alabama after Bear Bryant? (I know I’m dating myself with these analogies…but, what the heck…it’s my blog!)
  • But, it was God who “exalted” him; we never will really succeed at pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s just a misconception in popular American culture.
  • Speaking of bootstraps, have you ever noticed that the waters of the Jordan River — at flood stage, no less — did not part until the soles of the priests’ feet hit the waves? God is the original “just in time” delivery system!
  • I wonder how heavy that ark got while the whole nation of Israel took their time crossing the river?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Verse 2 is a great reminder: “let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Don’t make God’s work in your lives a secret! It’s okay actually to talk about it. A pastor I met once referred to evangelism as “saying something good about God.” 

I like it.

Micah 3:5-12
Don’t lean on God to cover your own behind. God never owes it to any of us to clean up our mess. 

Psalm 43
There are certainly hope-challenged and soul-disquieting days that come our way. How powerful to pray for the light and truth of God — which is sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that God has not given (and will not give) up on you.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Those of us who had uplifting, encouraging parents received a true blessing from God. Not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever our draw in the parental lottery, we are encouraged by this passage to “live lives worthy of God.”

Matthew 23:1-12
I saw this week where Mike Judge, the creator of the infamous comic duo Bevis and Butthead, is working on an upcoming theatrical release of the boys’ new adventures. I can just hear Bevis snorting now, “Heh-heh-heh…you said ‘phylactery!’”

What is a phylactery, exactly? According to the omnipresent Wikipedia (which is actually pretty good on their Jewish minutiae): Phylactery is the English name forTefillin, a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Anyhow, the Pharisees are ripped by Jesus basically for being all show (BIG phylacteries, those guys!) and no go when it comes to what counts in the kingdom of God. There really is no better way to say it than v. 12.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Tom Wright tells a funny story about a trip to the “camping store’ to buy all the right equipment for a two week hiking and camping trip.  The salesman was an expert on everything Wright needed; tents, maps, socks shoes, waterproof clothing, cooking utensils, water purifier, sleeping bag, and finally, the backpack. Wright paid for everything, put it all in the pack (again under the careful instruction of the salesman), then struggled to get the pack on his back.  After he finally got the whole kit up and headed for the door, he asked the salesman where he liked to go hiking and camping.  The man shrugged and said that he had a bad back and preferred going to the beach. (Matthew for Everyone, p.96)

What was it Jesus said, “. . . do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (verse 3)

Now, this is not an unfamiliar story.  With apologies to my sister and my nephew and to the teachers in this congregation, all of whom are fine teachers; we all know the old joke about how, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s not really true about most teachers, but we laugh anyway.

And in many ways, this business of “do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t as bad as we make it out to be.  Lots of coaches of sports teams are much too old and out of shape to do the things they teach their players to do. My Daddy was able to coach my brother on the running of the farm long after he was no longer able to do the work himself.

But the hypocrisy Jesus is referring to here does matter; it matters a lot. This is not a matter of age and physical limitations; rather this is a matter of duplicity.  The problem with the “scribes and Pharisees,” is that in their teaching they imply that they are good examples of the principles they teach, when in fact they are anything but.

Like the salesman at the camping store, the scribes and Pharisees loaded the common people with heavy burdens, “backpacks” full of things they insisted the people needed for the spiritual journey through life. They had come up with 613 “commandments” and interpretations of those commandments, that, they said, must to be obeyed; and yet, they themselves, found loopholes, ways around, the very rules they made.

Not only that, Jesus said it was all for show, a false front to make themselves look good. Phylacteries were leather boxes with little bits of scripture in them that one wore tied across one’s forehead to obey the command to “keep God’s word ever before you.”  It is said that some were so large and ornate that they blocked the view of the person wearing it and they had to hold it aside to walk down the street. The “fringes” were tassels on the corner of prayer shawls and were traditionally small and discreet, whereas the people Jesus is talking about made them large and showy. It was religious “bling.”  And these same folks wanted to walk the equivalent of the religious red carpet and to sit in the big chair at the head of the table at all community banquets.  Jesus is taking on an important issue here: the love of place and preference among the servants of God.

We’re all smart enough to know that Jesus is not talking about all the scribes and Pharisees, just some.  And because this text was written by the church for the church; it’s not just about scribes and Pharisees then and there, it’s also about us, here and now.

Now, I have to tell you that as a person who wears a variety of colorful “prayer shawls” on Sundays and who gets to sit almost anywhere he pleases up front here, this is a difficult text to hear.  “Ouch,” is my initial reaction.  Is this me and folk like me that Jesus is talking about?  What was Jesus getting at in saying this and what was Matthew trying to say in telling about it years later?

This is about what Fred Craddock calls “the love of place and preference among the servants of God.” (Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 498)  It is not about attire; it’s about attitude.  It’s not about titles; it’s about a sense of entitlement.  It is not only about the ordained; it is also about any of the ordinary folk whom God choses for leadership who begin to think they must have been extraordinary for God to have chosen them.

This text is a call for all religious leaders to walk the talk, to do their humble best to live their lives in harmony with the things they ask of others.  There is an intriguing story about Gandhi that shows the standard we are all invited to follow.

A mother came to Gandhi and asked him to have a talk with her son, whom she said was addicted to sugar.  Gandhi thought for a minute and asked her to come back the next week.  When she did, he put her off for another week, and then another, and then another.  Finally she protested, “Why do you keep putting me off?”  Gandhi hung his head and said.  “I had no idea how hard it would be for me to give up sugar.”

“People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.” (N.T. Wright translation.)

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 26, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
What can you say about Moses? We don’t suppose that Moses actually wrote his own epitaph here in Deuteronomy, and the accolades are obvious and well-deserved: mighty deeds, terrifying displays of power, unequaled as a prophet and servant of God.

No wonder that, when Jesus meets two characters from Israel’s ancient past on the mountain of transfiguration, Moses is included (alongside Elijah — a fairly significant personage in his own right!) Moses is and should be famous for so many reasons.

But, his real claim to fame lies in v. 10, I believe; “Never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” 

The vitality of our ministries — our very quality of living — is most likely quite proportional to the closeness with which we dwell in relationship with God. 

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Grasping eternity is not something that we are able to do easily, if at all. Eternity is a very long thing to try to imagine. Especially when you consider that eternity stretches to infinity in at least two directions (from our temporal perspectives, anyway) — eternity past and eternity future. 

Psalm 90:2 says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Before time was, God is; when time shall be no more, God still is. God never was; there is never a time when Godwill be. God simply is. And, of course, that goes for all of the time and times in-between. There is never a time or place that you or I will be that we cannot stop to pray, “Lord, I thank you that you are….”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Here we have the setting for Jesus’ “second greatest commandment” — while loving God with heart, soul and strength, we are to work on loving neighbor as self. Out of all the great commandments given by God and upheld by centuries of religious tradition and teaching, it is these two that are singled out as the magnum opera of spiritual significance.

Like, pay attention, dude!

Psalm 1
Hebrew wisdom literature is known for its propensity for taking two things, sitting them side by side, and asking, in some form or the other, “so which of these do you think it is best to choose?” Psalm 1 is a classic example. 

There is the way of the righteous, characterized as a tree planted by an ever-flowing stream of water. (Consider what such a stream must have connoted to a people who lived most of their lives in the desert!)

The way of the wicked, however, is like so much dry wheat chaff — the by-product of the reaping process. When the grain is thrashed, the heavier kernels fall to the ground and are gathered. The chaff is the clinging, choking, worthless dust that comes off the shock. It just blows away and is good for — well, nothing really, except to be dust.

So, which of these do you think it is best to choose?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Ever known any well-meaning Christians who practice what I call, “evangelism by hook or crook?” Bringing people into the kingdom of God is held to be such an important value that an “all means necessary” approach becomes carte blanche to make promises, enticements, or offer rewards that may or may not have anything at all to do with the righteousness and grace of God.

(I once heard of a church that offered pony rides to children — but wanted them all to decide to “accept Jesus” first. I’m still trying to understand that linkage!)

We do not want to be homiletically guilty of any such manipulation or misrepresentation with our own claims concerning the gospel. It must have been something of an issue for first-century apostles and preachers, as well, since Paul goes to such great lengths to avoid doing so with the Thessalonian church.

We do what we do because of the love of God in us, and the love of God for the “dear children” of whom we have been given charge. 

Matthew 22:34-46
“Give me the bottom line.” 
“What’s the takeaway?”
“Let’s cut to the chase.”

All of these catch-phrases indicate the value our culture places on brief, direct communication. They may all be subtle stand-ins for the ever popular, “What’s in it for me?”

At any rate, Jesus gives us the “great bottom line” — there are two things that matter most in this life. Those are loving God and loving others (with the necessary corollary, loving yourself — I’m thinking that for some folks who will listen to us on Sunday, that third one is actually the toughest one to accomplish!)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.”  That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that would require them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that? Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get too involved with the neighbors whom they can see.

This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind.  We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit. In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.

Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life. In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.

This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment.  In response, Jesus does two things.  First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment. Then he politely shuts them up with a riddle from Psalm 110.  “If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can he also be David’s master?” is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”

G.K. Chesterton once joked: Jesus commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same folk – this is not at all easy. It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along.  It is hard work.  It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even  you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship.  It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care.  It involves being religious as well as spiritual.

This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor.  Loving God can be easy.  God is away off there somewhere.  We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life.  That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.

We can love God with an easy conscience because we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.

But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back. And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really care to be cared about.  It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.

The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have spoken more truth than they realize.  “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there.  It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it.  It is more feeling and impression than anything else. On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament.  You can’t get much more earthy than that.  Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back.  Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.

Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them.    A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering.  Rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.

God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.

Amen and amen

Year A: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 19, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 33:12-23
There is a good bit of discussion in our society about what it means to “know God.” Evangelical Christians assert that not only is it possible to know God, but that through a “personal relationship” with Jesus you can know God’s exact, perfect, individualized will for your life!

Other stripes of Christians amongst us most likely have varying understandings of what it means to know God. Our diversity of opinions and freedom to pick theological nits is sometimes a boon to us; at other times, it is most definitely a bane. 

[Writing on, atheist author Adam Lee commented, “I’d love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches’ wounds are largely self-inflicted.”]

Moses speaks for us concerning our passionate desire to both see and know God; “if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” Life is scary and the road — without faith — can be awfully rough and rocky.

And God, knowing that God’s own Divine Presence is likely to overwhelm us if we actually could get a good glimpse, responds with tenderness: “I’ll show myself to you, but not completely. I’ll cover you with my hand and you’ll get a sort of look in the rear-view mirror. But that will be enough — it will have to be enough.”

Mostly, I think this passage reminds me that God will be gracious when God desires to be gracious, and will show mercy on whom God desires to show mercy. I’m thinking that goes for the faithful among us — evangelical, mainline, orthodox, catholic — as well as for the “un”-faithful, as well. 

God believes in you, Mr. Lee.

Psalm 99
Need an encounter with the presence of God? Do what Moses did…head for a mountain somewhere! No wonder the ancients considered “the high places” to be the demesne of the gods. Has anybody ever counted how often the Bible references “mountains” or “hills” or “high places” with reference to the presence of God?

Isaiah 45:1-7
This passage is striking — at least to me — for the implication that God can “call” and “use” someone who absolutely does not know (or care?) who God is! 

I do not believe that we have anywhere in the Bible a profession of faith or moment of commitment from the life of Cyrus, the Persian king, with regard to the Holy One of Israel. And yet, Yahweh calls Cyrus his “anointed one” —meshiach in the Hebrew, christos in the Greek.

Well, wadda’ ya’ know? 

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
Some of my favorite “worship words” in this psalm:

  • Sing (lots of singing!)
  • Bless
  • Tell
  • Declare
  • Revere
  • Ascribe
  • Worship
  • Tremble
  • Rejoice
  • Roar
  • Exult
  • Oh, and sing again!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Talk about a church with an actual GOOD reputation! How long has it been since you heard this kind of buzz concerning your congregation?

“…your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Sounds like a good job description for the church, not to mention a great antidote to the kind of perfidy attested in Adam Lee’s quote [see above.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Tsk, tsk, tsk…when will the hapless Pharisees ever learn? You just don’t get the goods on Jesus with a trick question!
This jewel of a statement (“render unto Caesar, etc.”) makes allegiances to church and state pretty clear, n’est-ce pas?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who grew up in a little country church in the Carolinas that was founded about the time of the American Revolution.
For most of its 200 plus years not much happened in either the church or the community; life went on pretty much the same year after year.
Then, in the 1980s, change happened and happened fast; Interstates and urban sprawl and Sun Belt migration. What had once been farmland was now covered with upscale subdivisions and shopping malls.
The church changed too, not without a struggle, but eventually the church moved into the 21st century.
One Monday morning the pastor was visited in his office by a man whose family had been charter members of the church way back when. He had grown up in the church then went away for an education and a career. A few years back he had sold off the family farm to a developer and no one had heard from him since.
He had returned to the community for his 40th high school reunion and had attended worship on Sunday. He was not happy.
He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the church since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that church for all those years.
He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”
“If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we?
Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state; these are not the core concern of this Bible story.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God; about not living our lives as though God were dead, while confessing our faith with our lips.
In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who thought of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God.
The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
Listen again to verses 15-17. If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an Emperor who claims to be a god.
As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar . . . “So far, so good. But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
The call of this text to those of us gathered here today is to not forget God in the midst of our busy-ness.
It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question is “Do you believe in God?” over 90% of us say “Yes.”
But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations; think about the culture we live in: do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?
Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the harsh, judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the cruel laws aimed at immigrants, etc. etc. the list goes go on and on.
And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God him or her self!
And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake.
In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability; do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I remember a little of Latin that helps me keep things straight. Ultima means last, like the last syllable on a word, or the last letter in an alphabet. Penultima means next to last, the letter or syllable just before the last.
In common language, the ultima became the most important thing, the final thing. And the penultima was the almost final thing, the second most important.
Whatever else is important in our life; our job, our family, our children, our politics, ours sports team, God has to be our ultima, the most important, everything else is in second place.
Remember; “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’,” and more importantly, “Render unto God that which is God’s.”
Amen and amen.

Year A: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 12, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 32:1-14
I used to relish picking arguments with a few of my more “fundamental” brethren (rarely are any of my “sistern” fundamental, for some reason) —  over the statement “God never changes.” Sputtering, they would assert vehemently that, if God could or should ever change in any manner, then surely the fate of the world as we know it would hang in the balance! Supposedly, the created order depends on God not being able to exercise an option available to each and every one of us weak mortals — the ability to change one’s mind.

Of course, I would then cite Exodus 32:14 (which — being part of “the word of God” — is unassailably inerrant and infallible.) There proceeded much gnashing of teeth, and of course, there was no real purpose served by any of it. (I did eventually reform my ways and give up on such exercises.)

All of this to say, just what are we to make of the idea that God sometimes needs input in order to make up God’s mind? I’m probably glad, if the truth were told, that God has not acted instantly upon every stupid decision I have made in my lifetime — I have had my share of “golden calf” moments. 

Doesn’t this have something to do with the concept of God’s grace?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Truer words have never been spoken than those in v.6 — we have sinned, as have all those who have come before us (and, presumably, will those who come after us.) And thus, we have a problem!

I am thankful for those who answer the call of Moses and “stand in the breach.” Parents, teachers, preachers, friends…all of these at one time or another are found in the role of intercessors on our behalf. Sometimes, their intercession comes in the form of a swift kick to the behind — for us, not for God. Anyway, thank God for the “breach-fillers!”

Isaiah 25:1-9
Later preachers and seers would echo Isaiah’s bold words from this passage. Paul found his image of “death is swallowed up in victory” here (see 1 Corinthians 15:54) and John’s Apocalypse brings the message that “God will wipe away the tears” from all eyes (see Revelation 21:4.)

I am a bit partial to the images of “rich, marrow-filled food” and “well-aged wines” as avatars of God’s graciousness. But, it is only fair to note that, sometimes, God’s work takes the form of fortified cities reduced to ruin — and the abode of “aliens” resigned to the midden heap. 

Those final words are the kind of things “that make you go, hmmmmm….” (Kudos to Arsenio Hall.)

Psalm 23
Okay, you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really try to add to the commentary available for passages like Psalm 23. What else can I say?

I do love the image of the “darkest valley” — perhaps I hear strains of Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — to remind me that there is nowhere I will ever be, that God is not already there.

Philippians 4:1-9
Two godly church women in a squabble — who says the Bible isn’t true to 21st-century life? (A pastor’s life, anyway!)

Euodia and Syntyche were fomenting division in the church. (There is a nice play on words in the Greek here — their names mean “pleasant aroma” and “dwelling together” — and the fight they were having was distinctly odorous and unharmonious.) What is the antidote to such church-rending?

Rejoice in the Lord…let your gentleness be known…don’t worry; instead pray. Think on the kinds of things that are honorable, true, pure, just, et cetera. You’d be surprised how the peace of God can fill a space when we are willing to back down, chill out, and invite God in!

Matthew 22:1-14

Remember what I just said about the handiwork of God sometimes resulting in leveling the town? Well, here you go…here’s a parable for you!
The requirements for being “chosen” in the kingdom of God are beyond mysterious sometimes.Anybody remember the old commercial from American television in the 1970’s — “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”
Whatever else may be said, the invitation to come to the Lord is not to be taken lightly or trifled with. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As a Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal parish, I sometimes found myself wearing the wrong liturgical clothes.  It’s nothing important, just little variations.  Like at an installation – Lutheran pastors would normally wear their alb and a stole the color of the season, red being reserved for the ordinations of pastors and consecrations of diaconal ministers and commissioning of associates in ministry.  Not so in the Episcopal Church.  If you’re just attending and not serving, you wear a black cassock and white surplice with red stole.  An irreverent Episcopal layperson of my acquaintance refers to the resulting processional as the “penguin parade.”  I fairly quickly caught on and thank goodness the Episcopalians were very understanding and didn’t throw me out.

The man in our gospel lesson was not so lucky.  This is one of the more peculiar and puzzling plot twists in all of Jesus’ parables. He was just standing on the street corner when someone comes by and says, “Hey, do you want to go to a party?”  He says, “Sure, why not?” and so he goes.  And before he can finish his salad, somebody comes by and says, “Arrest that man, he’s not wearing a tux.  Throw him out of here!”  It leaves us scratching our heads and wondering, “What was that all about?” Most of us end up muttering “I don’t get it, I really don’t get it.”  Well, let’s see if we can sort this out.

Three of our lessons today refer to celebratory meals: Isaiah 25:6 “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods.”  Psalm 23: 5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” And our Gospel lesson all about the wedding banquet the king was giving for his son.  Throughout the scriptures such meals are an image of the kingdom of heaven.

In Isaiah it is vision of what God is aiming at, what God’s plan and hope for all humanity is, where life is leading us. Did you hear, “for all peoples?”  In the next verse, Isaiah goes further and talks about God destroying death – not just for some, but for everyone “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever.”

This hope of a safe place with God is reflected in the psalm’s use of “prepare a table before me.” While the psalmist is not likely to have thought of this in quite the same universal way that Isaiah did, the image, coupled with the next line about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever, is a reflection of the deep awareness of the Hebrew people that their life and death were all in the hands of God and that God’s love and provision were to be trusted.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us very clearly that this is a parable about the “kingdom of heaven.”

This is perhaps best understood as the community of those who have given themselves completely to following the will and way of God in the world.  To paraphrase Paul in Philippians; wherever you find folk who are pursuing, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable . . .” there you will find the kingdom of heaven. It is something God creates and that we human beings participate in at God’s invitation.  It is very clear in both Isaiah and Matthew that everyone is ultimately invited.

But, not everyone accepts the invitation.  This is the subject of the parable. It is an exploration of two basic facts; not everyone who is invited decides to come and, not everyone who comes is really ready to be there.

Jesus is telling this parable in Jerusalem and he is pointedly telling it to the chief priests and elders,  people who have turned down the invitation to the kingdom first issued by John the Baptist and then by Jesus.  Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been saying what he started saying way back in chapter 4, verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to preach saying, ‘Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

But a lot of people didn’t want to repent, they didn’t want to turn around and go in a new direction, they didn’t want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, they were very happy going about their business as they were.  They were much too busy with their financial and cultural and familial obligations to respond to an invitation to get involved in dangerous things like justice and mercy and caring for the poor and the suffering.

As the parable unfolds, the king responds to their snub with fury, and then he says, “Well, if the supposedly good people won’t come, let’s open the doors to everybody.”  Now, this is a message we in the modern world want to hear.  The kingdom of heaven is inclusive, everybody’s welcome.

But, actually there’s a catch, and it’s a catch most of us don’t like to think about.

My old friend Ellenita Zimmerman put it best I think, “It is true that God loves you just the way you are. It is also true that God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  While the going out and gathering together everyone “good and bad,” and bringing them in to the banquet is a clear proclamation of the fact that God invites all to come; the expelling of the man who did not have a wedding robe is an equally clear expression of the fact that those who come to the party are expected to respond to the love of God by changing their lives.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, there is a world of hurting people around us in desperate need of a touch of the kingdom of heaven in their midst.  There are needs crying out from across the world and across the street.  Homelessness, poverty, hunger, war, environmental disaster, etc. etc.  We have been invited to carry the kingdom to these people, we have been called to go and get them and bring them into God’s banquet of love.  And the question is, what are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?

Amen and amen.