October 12, 2014, 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Year A, Proper 23

October 12, 2014

The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“They went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was full of guests.”

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. This is a pretty straight forward parable. It is almost certainly plain old allegory, it is a story that represents deeper meanings: the king is God, the son is, well, the Son, Jesus, the invited guests who have better things to do than go to a wedding are the same rascals from last weeks parable of the wicked tenants, which is to say it was the nation of Israel, those not following the new way, the way of Jesus Christ. (This is one of those tragic moments in scripture where evil co-opted Christ’s message and over the centuries weaponized these words to further hateful, anti-Semetic agendas. That was not the point in 85ish CE when it was written). The destruction of the city is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 by the Roman legions and the servants gathering the guests were the Christian missionaries doing their work bolstering the flock. So that’s the setting, that’s the allegorical framework the Jesus lays out for us. That’s pretty easy to see. What is He getting at?

There are two key concepts being lifted up in this parable. The first is a theme throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. That theme is a variation on the theme “the first will be last and the last will be first,” with this one in the key of “the expected guests are absent and the most unlikely are present.” Like previous parables, the leaders of the nation and temple are held in contempt for not following the new revelation of God, for not coming to the wedding feast while the outcasts, the prostitutes and tax collectors, while they would not even be invited to the weddings of the powerful there they were, reveling at the banquet with the King and His son.             The lesson we are to take is in part, the invitation is widely offered, freely offered to all, even, but it does take our will to accept the invitation. Human beings are free to choose or not choose, and those choices can have cosmically, ontologically significant consequences.

Then there is the guy who showed up without a wedding robe… “’Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and nashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Hmmm… So the practical lesson is to read the wedding invitation and make sure you know how formal it is, right? This is some pretty dicey theological ice to be treading on. This is a pretty central text for John Calvin and his Reform cohort’s theology of election, that some of us were saved from the beginning of time while others, well, others of us have a different fate ahead of us. Some are chosen and some are not. The rub is, as the doctrine goes, we don’t know who is who. The Anglican way never adopted the theology of election or pre-destination. We never assumed Universalism either, idea that all are saved no matter what. But the idea of hell and damnation just has not been a major theme in our theological discourse. And in all things Anglican, we don’t really have dogmatic stances on much of anything. It is our scripture encountered in solitude and together, our common prayer, and our individual and corporate relationships with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and with those we share this life with… that’s the doctrinal heart of Anglicanism, so the theme of election doesn’t hold a lot of sway here.

One thing we can take from the man cast into the outer darkness is the corollary to the freedom we have to choose or not choose God. That is while human freedom is real, in the end it is in the hands of God. This is the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty. That does hold some sway. I can’t find it in myself to ascribe to God any sort of willful casting out of anyone from God’s own light; that doesn’t balance in my figuring of divine equanimity and justice. However, terrible things happen to all sorts of people who don’t deserve it. You show up in the wrong outfit and it is the outer darkness; you helped a pregnant cousin get to the hospital because she was sick and you come back home with Ebola. What can you say? I can’t imagine our God saving some and damning others, consigning some to lives of ease and pleasure and others to lives of misery, but there is plenty of misery. I don’t know… great is the mystery of faith? This could be a fair read of this parable, holding up the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty.

There is another reading of the man in the wrong suit that Rob mentioned last week during discernment. Anyone remember what he said? He suggested that it could be seen as a commentary on community norms. The man without a wedding robe had slipped in dressed in a way that was culturally unacceptable. Many are called… the invitation is widely sent, but few are chosen… there are ways, there are norms of how we conduct ourselves in community. We have plenty of norms in our society. We keep our hands to our selves. We don’t steal. We don’t kill. We honor our elders. We help those who can’t help themselves. We chip in when help is needed. We keep our word. We’re good neighbors. All are invited, there is no doubt in my mind about that, and just accepting the invitation might not be enough. Accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior while wearing a Klu Klux Klan hood isn’t going to cut it; I can’t imagine that it counts. Perhaps this part of the parable is hyperbole, an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally, like the 10,000 talents the wicked slave owed the master from a few weeks ago.   All are welcome and there are ways that we gather that accepting the invitation obliges you to accept.

In our communal life here, we have a lot of expectations and norms. There are some very basic ones: We stand when we sing. We’re quiet during prayer. We give everyone who walks through this door or accepts our ministry or sleeps on our porch a wide a gracious benefit of the doubt. We’re gracious when the priest sings off key. You know, the little things.

Our norms in community can also be very demanding. We love each other. Even the annoying. Especially the annoying and impossible and horrendously broken. There is no clearer sign of a true Christian community than the ethic of trying to love everyone. And we forgive, extravagantly. That’s a hard one. We ask a lot from those who have a lot to give and less from those who have little to give right now. Those are community norms. The norm is not accomplishing it, you don’t have to love everyone here, that’s impossible, but the expectation is that you have to try to love everyone and try to forgive everyone. If you are not able to do that, well, you have to be open to trying. Remember, even the desire to please God is pleasing to God no matter the results. And if you are not willing to do that, to even try, well, maybe another community would serve you better. Another norm we have in this community is that we contribute to the life of the Church. (That’s a pretty clever way to bring stewardship into this sermon, no?) Now I resisted the request of the stewardship committee to threaten non-pledgers with the outer darkness… that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that this church is not a spectator sport. A requirement of inclusion in this community is contributing to this community. And the key is that you contribute what you can, the widow’s mite, right? The less you have to offer, the more valuable becomes what you do give. And we give in many ways. We give our love and prayers and good will. We give our time and energy and skills. And right now, we are entering the short season where we commit a portion of our wealth, our earnings, the first fruits of our labor to the commonwealth of this parish.

One thing we are trying to stress in this years campaign are the spiritual rewards of generosity, the fruits of sharing. Ben is going to talk very convincingly about his experience of giving. He’s a lot further along in his spiritual maturity about giving than I am, and I’ve learned a lot from him. And the biggest lesson I am beginning to get an inkling of is that giving feels good. It is rewarding. Figuring our pledge this year, refiguring the church in our list of priorities, increasing it from last year, thinking about where it will come from and writing it out on the pledge card… it is powerful. “We can do this!”

For us, the trouble was how to begin? A tithe, 10%? You’ve got to be serious. We’re raising a family of four on $64,000. We’re grateful for the generosity of the congregation and don’t have an inkling of a complaint AND there is not a lot of wiggle room with student debt and a farm and the rest of it. But 10%? That is the historic norm and I do hold as true that we should all give away at least 10% of what we have annually, but I do not have the hubrus to think that the church deserves all of that. More than ever our social services need your support, so do to the arts. Give there and give directly to those in need, and give some to the church. Whatever you do, give.

But how to start? In the pledge materials you received there is a tool that helps us understand how much we give. The idea is called proportional giving, which basically has us look at our giving not based on a dollar amount, but based on a percentage of our earnings. So instead of saying, “I’m going to give $1500 this year,” proportional giving would have us say, “I’m going to give 2%, or 2.5% of my earnings.” And then figure out what that amounts to.   (Net, after taxes… if you are asking the question you get to choose). We’ve been incrementally upping our pledge based on proportional giving. This coming year we pledged $3600, nearly 6%, up a percent and a half from last year. We’re incrementally working towards 10%. And do you know what, it will be a bit uncomfortable. We’ll have to do with a little less personal consumer freedom, and that feels good. In a society so defined by wealth and how we use it, directing our wealth towards something we really believe in, something that aligns very closely with our family’s values, is a satisfying and fulfilling action. Please think about what this place means to you, about the value of the work of this community in the world, and as you consider your pledge this year, please stretch. It feels good to make a commitment to something you believe in. (And there is that much less of a chance of being cast into that darkness in case I’m wrong about all of it)!

The Kingdom of God is the world as it is meant to be. It is like a wedding feast where all are welcome. By being here, you all have accepted God’s invitation, and you are living in this incarnation of the Kingdom. As a collective, we appreciate your prayerful discernment of how much you can share with this community. Thank you. AMEN.