Year A, Proper 23 October 15, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Now that is a refreshing way to kick off a sermon! Take a deep breath. “Rejoice!”
Our problems, the problems of the world are real, but they will not have the final word. “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” “Again I will say, Rejoice!” But before we get carried away with too much rejoicing, let’s deal with the outer darkness and the gnashing of teeth.
Matthew’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet is hard. The first part of the story, the invitation to the wedding banquet, the rejection by the usual invitees and the acceptance by the people on the streets is a variation on the theme “the first will be last and the last will be first.” That’s a fine message. The part about destroying those murders and burning their cities… Remember, Matthew’s community existed in the traumatic wake of the destruction of the Temple. Everything was shattered; their government, economy, religion, all crushed under a Roman sandal. They were trying to make meaning of the desolating sacrilege and the Evangelist places the wrath of God in General Titus and his Legions. Fair enough.
But then it jumps to the guest found not wearing the appropriate wedding robe. He was taken, bound and thrown into the outer darkness. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. He was pulled in off the street, right? No one walks around with a wedding robe. The punishment seems arbitrary and cruel. Likely, though, this was a separate parable that somehow got folded into this one. As a stand-alone parable it makes more sense, but it is still a pointed message: showing up is not enough; you need to be prepared, you need to be doing what you are supposed to be doing. The doctrine of grace is that God’s invitation is offered to everyone, the deserving and the undeserving, or as it says here, “both good and bad.” We are all invited, but God leaves it is up to us to RSVP, to change our hearts and minds, to put on the armor of light, the wedding rode, and partake of the feast. Just getting the invitation is not enough, we need to respond.
Jesus tells us very clearly how to respond. Just a few chapters on Jesus teaches, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…” that is how we inherit the Kingdom. Easy-peasy, right? Just be utterly selfless, serving the least of these, friend and enemy, and the Kingdom of Heaven is yours! Jesus is clear about all the “love-stuff” but how do we put ourselves in a posture to really do it, to love friend and enemy in the way we are expected to, especially when that is the last thing we want, or feel capable of doing? St. Paul, in his letter to his friends in Philippi, lays out a path, “…stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”
Paul is a churchman, first and foremost. By that I mean that he sees “The Church”, the Body of Christ as primary to our relationship with God, or maybe more accurately, being part of the Church, being part of a Christ-centered community is a, if not the primary practice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything Paul does and writes is about building that Body, enabling us, would-be disciples of Jesus, to participate in it, because holy community is the Way of and to Jesus. This short passage in the letter to the people in Philippi offers some deep wisdom on a primary Christian practice: living in community.
Community life is fabulous. We’re doing it right now. It is dynamic, exciting, fun. Through it we find companionship, accountability, encouragement, security, friendship, love. We find a sense of purpose. We grow and learn. Though we all need our solitude, we are not solitary creatures, we need connection to others. How many of your fondest memories are about experiences you had in community? So many of mine are all wrapped up with classmates, folks I’ve volunteered with, members of this church and others and in the communities of friends and home-schoolers I have been part of. Families are a form of community. Community is the stuff of life.
In times of joy, we gather. Weddings, baptisms, birthdays, feasts and holidays of all sorts. And we gather in times of loss and tragedy. Funerals. Commemorations. Vigils for the slain. I have two friends who pastor churches in Sonoma County. In one of their churches, at least eleven families have been burnt out of their homes, and many more are evacuated. Their Facebook pages are a litany of community life, of people gathering together because they need to gather together, a light in the darkness. And all that gathering together is wicked easy, isn’t it?
Windy and I lived and worked at an Episcopal monastery for five years. The monks’ lives were ordered by a rule of life which had its basis in the Rule of St. Benedict. They had a pretty rigorous practice, most famously poverty, obedience and chastity. But what we observed, right in line with St. Benedict in the 6th century, was that those big three were challenging to the brothers, but day in, day out, the biggest source of stress and conflict, and hence the biggest site of monastic practice, was simply living together. Being poor, obedient and celibate is one thing; taking every meal, going to church four times a day, sharing a bathroom with Brother So-and-so is in an entirely different category of asceticism. Living in community is hard. There is a lot of bumping into each other, lots of opportunities for opposing ideas about how things should be done, from how to select a new superior to how nasty does a sponge need to be before it is thrown away. Famously at the mother house in England there was a box on a shelf in the basement labeled “Bits of string too short to use.” I can only imagine the fights that led to that box’s existence. We remember Euodia and Syntyche two thousand years later because they were in some kind of conflict. We do pretty well here. Resurrection is not a conflicted community, but still, community life is challenging.
So we need to practice a life in Christ by living in community. Fair enough. But how do we do that? Paul has a few suggestions.
First off, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice.” For many, that’s a no- brainer. Joy is the default. There is a general cheerfulness about most people, and for good reason. God is good and God’s creation, the world around us, we and those we share it with, is and are generally good. Very good! Look at the sun out there. A week of rain and the sun is back and you can feel the grass rejoicing. The ephemerals blanket the forest floor, basking in the life-giving moisture. We have children in our lives, here or in our homes. Meaningful work abounds. Friends enrich us. Beauty surrounds us. Yes, there is lots of bad news, but human history is largely a history of small, unrecorded acts of decency and neighborliness. Even in the meanest of situations, most of the time, most of us do, or probably could tend towards a joyous outlook. Christmas and Easter are most folks’ favorite seasons for very good reason.
I love Advent and Lent. I follow more in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis in being Surprised by Joy. I tend towards thinking that joy is too often escapism. In our wider culture, I think it often is. It is a shallow, “don’t worry, be happy” sentimental joy. Delusionally so. We, as a people, are terrible at grieving. We can’t admit defeat, or error, or failure. We haven’t “won” a war since 1945, but how long would a politician last if they said that out loud? We greedily cling to youthfulness and avoid death, deny death. Culturally approved joy can feel very escapist. The joy Paul is describing here is not an escape. Religious joy is not escapist, because it accounts for the dark. Easter is so brilliant because it follows Good Friday. It is a fundamental posture of engaging with the world. It is not skipping Good Friday, but it is leading with the fact that that is not where the story ends. Paul knows that honest joy, like prayer, or service or giving, as he lays it out here, is a practice. And it is not a practice of being happy, though that is a likely consequence, but it is rejoicing in the Lord, in the actual, not the apparent. The eternal, not the perishable. The perfection that is the world, not the sin-distorted image we encounter. Rejoice indeed.
Another practice Paul commends to us is the practice of forbearance. In the version we read this morning, the NRSV, it is translated as gentleness. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” In the King James it is “moderation.” In several commentaries I consulted, “forbearance” is either a better translation of the Greek or expresses a clearer connotation of the type of gentleness Paul writes of. Forbearance. It is like firmament, a good church word. What does forbearance mean? (And I am not talking about student loans). _____ Patient self-control. Restraint and tolerance. It means accepting those around you for who they are not who you would have them be. (And not with resignation, “That’s just how they are,” but with, I don’t know, joy)! Inevitably in living near or with other people, we are going to bump up into one another; there is going to be friction, we are going to get in each other’s way, there is always a Brother So-and-So. Have forbearance. Be patient, for, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” What if we could really do that? Like really not worry. What would this look like: you have a concern, but the final decision is not up to you, maybe there is some process, or there is a boss, or the group needs to decide. So you give your opinion, then lay it at the feet of God, with prayer, with thankful supplication (that is begging), leave it at God’s feet. It is not up to me! Step one, I am powerless! No matter how right you are, if it is not up to you, it is not up to you. Can you imagine the peace that could come if you could really leave things there at God’s feet? No, because it surpasses all understanding. It is not up to you. Can you imagine accepting that? I dream of it sometimes. That is the peace of wild things that Wendell Berry writes of.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The Peace of Wild Things. That’s a portrait of forbearance. I guess if you think about it, it is what rejoicing in the Lord always could look like, too. AMEN