Invited to Participate

Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon can be found here.

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This was the only moment during the trip that Muir wasn’t pouting.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt invited John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, to accompany him on a trip to what would ultimately become Yosemite National Park.  Though this trip was the catalyst for the creation of more than a dozen national parks during Roosevelt’s presidency, Muir was not terribly excited about the prospect of guiding the President through the California wilderness.  He initially wanted to decline the invitation, but a friend told him that one must always accept an invitation from the president.  While this offended Muir’s populist sensibilities, he eventually relented, allegedly quipping, “I suppose I shouldn’t refuse just because he happens to be president.”

As John Muir learned, there are apparently specific rules around when it is permissible to refuse a presidential invitation.  According to a guide published in 1880, one should only refuse such an invitation when one has reasons that are sufficiently “grave.”  In 1988, Miss Manners herself cautioned, “Only illness, a death in  the family, or hardship in making the trip are legitimate excuses for declining such an august invitation.”  The expectation is pretty clear: if the president invites you to go somewhere, you go.

The reason for these stringent rules about presidential invitations is that it is so very easy for refusals to be construed as political. A handful of people from history have famously declined opportunities to spend time with the president.  Nearly all of these individuals intended their refusal to broadcast their personal dissatisfaction with the president or their disapproval of his policies.  In other words, refusing a presidential invitation is less about one’s availability and much more about what one thinks is important.

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel intimates that there are consequences for declining more than just presidential invitations.  Matthew uses the phrase that ends today’s reading (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) several times during the course of the gospel narrative.  In most of these cases, the punishment appears to fit the crime: those sent to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness are wicked, unfaithful, hypocritical, or disobedient.  It is only in this parable that someone is sent into the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit to a party.  This is a terrifying proposition.  Is there anyone here who hasn’t misinterpreted “business casual” and ended up wearing a polo shirt while everyone else was in a suit?  The way this parable is constructed, it seems as though this kind of faux pas could have eternal implications.  It doesn’t seem fair at all.  This guy didn’t even know he was coming to the wedding feast until he was dragged from the side of the road and brought into the hall.  How on earth was he supposed to be appropriately attired for this event?  But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, given this king’s track record of overreaction.  In the first part of this parable, he literally orders the execution of those who decline his invitation to the wedding banquet.  Sure, they made light of the invitation; sure, they mistreated his slaves; but did the king really have to destroy the whole city?  It seems as though the message of this parable is that we had better be on our toes, because God is capricious and willing to consign us to hell for offenses that most would regard as merely impolite.

Part of the challenge of this parable is that it is easy to become distracted by the king’s overreaction (as I did a moment ago); the punishments are so unreasonable.  If we remember, however, that this story is a parable, we can recognize that the punishments are not the point of this story; they’re simply intended to make it more vivid.  When we recognize this, we can pay attention to the other details in the parable, particularly to those who refused to attend the wedding banquet.  I think our assumption is that these people were simply unavailable, that they had too much going on and would have loved to attend the wedding but could not fit it into their schedules.  But the text tells us that the king sends his slaves to call those who had already been invited.  They had already agreed to attend; they had already committed themselves to participating in this celebration.  Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that they kept refusing to come. Even in the face of this obstinacy, the king sends another set of slaves who are instructed to say “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”  In other words, “this is what you have been waiting for; why on earth would you reject this offer?”  Once again, the guests refuse the invitation.  Like those who refuse presidential invitations, these guests made a profound statement about what was important to them by saying “no” to the king.  These guests affirmed that their own petty concerns were more important than God’s call.  Their self-centeredness led them to stay on the periphery instead of experiencing the fullness of God’s redemptive love.  Their refusal to participate led them to turn away from God and consign themselves to self-destruction.

The same dynamic is at play with our robeless friend.  There is some scholarly division about the reference to the wedding robe in this parable.  Some scholars suggest that in first-century Middle Eastern culture the host was expected to provide a wedding robe to his guests, while others contest that there was no such thing as a wedding-specific robe in the first place.  In either case, it’s pretty clear that the man is not to blame for his robelessness.  What he is to blame for is his failure to participate.  Notice that when the king asks him “how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the man is speechless; he refuses even to answer the question, in spite of the fact that “what are you talking about” would apparently have been a legitimate response.  Ultimately, this man is consigned to the outer darkness not for his failure to wear a wedding robe, but for his refusal to participate in the banquet to which God has invited the whole human family.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Council released a survey about religion in American life, the results of which were alarming to those who are part of religious institutions.  In short, religious engagement and participation in this country have taken a nosedive during the past several decades.  Perhaps the most striking statistic to emerge from this survey is the rise of the so-called “nones,” those who profess no religious preference whatsoever.  These are not people who necessarily deny the existence of God; these are people who, when asked if they had any religious conviction, could muster no more than a noncommittal “Meh.”  It seems to me that a significant reason for the rise of these “nones” may be our failure to engage with the gospel proclamation.  As a community, we have been called to live our lives in light of the fact that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And yet, we have behaved like the people invited by the king: happy to have an invitation, but not particularly interested rearranging our schedules.  Or we have acted like the robeless wallflower at the banquet: willing to attend the wedding, but uncertain about participating.  We have been invited to a wedding banquet, yet too often we live our lives as though we have something better to do.  If the gospel doesn’t matter to us, how can we expect it to matter to anyone else?  This parable reminds us that God calls us not to be spectators, but participants.  We are called to engage with the gospel and allow it to transform our lives.  We are called to participate in the life of the Church and help it to reveal God’s glory.  We are called to embrace what is truly important: to accept and share the invitation God has extended to each and every one of us.

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Invitation

The week between January 18 and 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Heavenly Rest observed this occasion by having a pulpit exchange with First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, TX.  What follows is a sermon on John 1:35-51 offered to the people of First Central Presbyterian.

Indulge me for a moment, if you’d be so kind.  Think about the television show Wheel of Fortune.  What is the first image that comes to your mind?  While I’m no mind reader, I’d bet anything that for the vast majority of people, the first image that Wheel of Fortune conjures is Vanna White, clad in sparkly evening gown, revealing letters on a game board.  Am I right? 

For those of you who either haven’t seen or aren’t aware of this television show, Wheel of Fortune is a game show in which contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles to win cash and prizes determined by spinning this giant carnival wheel.  For the past 25 years, the show has been hosted by the aforementioned Vanna White, who reveals the correctly guessed letters from the puzzles, and Pat Sajak, who explains the rules of the game, makes small talk with the contestants, and is responsible for the giant wheel.  vanna whiteVanna is virtually silent and has very little to do during the course of the television show; all she has to do is point.  Pat, on the other hand, has to work the room like a small-town politician; he’s constantly encouraging people when they want to solve the puzzle or feigning interest in their mostly tedious anecdotes or consoling them when they lose.  It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the person most associated with Wheel of Fortune is not the guy who communicates with the contestants and operates the eponymous wheel; it is the woman who shows us the answer.  Apparently this is a source of some consternation for Mr. Sajak.  I heard a hilarious radio interview with him a few months ago.  Evidently, when people see him on the street, the first thing they ask him is: “Where’s Vanna?”  Sajak intimated that he would like to respond, “Why are you asking me?  We don’t live together!  And why do you care?  All she has to do is point to the letters!  She doesn’t even have to turn them around anymore; it’s all computerized!” 

While I suspect Mr. Sajak was being somewhat sarcastic, his question is an interesting one.  Why is it that we are more likely to be interested in Vanna White than Pat Sajak?  Why is Vanna White the first person we think of when we think about Wheel of Fortune?  I don’t think it is just because she wears beautiful clothes and seems like a pleasant person.  I believe that there something deeper at play.  There something about the human condition that attracts us to people who reveal things to us.  There something deep within us that draws us to people whose job it is to say “Let me show you.”

A few moments ago, we heard the gospel of John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  For those of us familiar with this story from other gospels, John’s account is decidedly unfamiliar.  There is no miraculous catch of fish, there is no abandoning of nets by the shore, there is no “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Instead, John tells us about these individual encounters with Jesus, and they’re all pretty strange.  First, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist; there is simply a declarative statement that reveals Jesus’ identity.  In the next encounter, one of John’s disciples asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  It’s an odd question to our ears (why would this guy care where Jesus is staying?), but this is how student-teacher relationships started in the ancient world.  A potential disciple would ask a rabbi where he was staying, and then present himself at the threshold of that teacher’s door early the next morning, demonstrating his devotion to studying under his tutelage.  So while the disciple’s question seems strange, it is actually Jesus’ response that is odd; instead of waiting for the disciple to present himself as a supplicant the next morning, Jesus tells him immediately, “Come and see.”  It’s as if John is saying that what Jesus is revealing to the world can’t wait for morning; it has to happen right away.  Hot on the heels of this encounter is the meeting of Jesus and Simon. The moment that Jesus looks at Simon, he says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.”  In John’s gospel, Peter doesn’t get his nickname after correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah; Jesus reveals it to him in the first five seconds of knowing him.  The final encounter is easily the strangest one.  After wondering sarcastically if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Nathanael approaches Jesus, who says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  This statement eventually leads Nathanael to identify Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel.

In some ways, this whole sequence is absurd.  No one walks around exchanging declarative statements like this and no one ends every sentence with an exclamation point (unless that person’s name is Richard Simmons); it’s just not how human beings communicate.  I’m confident that John understood this, that he deliberately chose to present these encounters with Jesus in a bizarre way.  This leaves us to wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us.  It’s pretty clear that for John, the revelation of Jesus Christ is something that simply can’t be contained.  Carousel june bustinThose of you who are familiar with musical theater may know the song “June is busting out all over” from Carousel; in the first chapter of John’s gospel, revelations are busting out all over.  For John the Baptist the mere presence of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Lamb of God and indicates that God is manifest in him.  In a similar way, Peter’s encounter with Jesus is an opportunity for conversion and transformation; it represents a call to a new vocation that is informed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  So on one hand, it might seem as though John is telling us that if we truly encounter Jesus, the effects are immediate: we will immediately recognize him and our lives will be transformed accordingly.  Christian history is filled with dramatic conversion experiences like these, stories of people who have had epiphanies of Jesus Christ that have led them to change their lives completely.  Indeed, I think that there is a popular assumption that the only way you can experience God is if you have had a sudden and dramatic conversion.  Part of the reason for this is that our culture loves conversion stories.  We love to identify those moments that changed people’s lives; we love stories about people who reoriented all of their priorities after a single dramatic experience.  Why else would the notion of “love at first sight” be so universally compelling?  Sure, we love love, but more importantly, we love a good conversion story.  And from what we read this morning, it seems that John is suggesting that this is the way God operates, that our encounter with Jesus Christ should represent one of these conversion moments, that as soon as we experience the Word made flesh, we should feel inexorably motivated to reorient our priorities and transform our lives completely.

This is certainly how it worked for numerous people throughout Christian history.  The stories of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, to name but a few, are all informed by this emphasis on conversion and transformation.  These men were living a certain way, had an epiphany of the living God, and then proceeded to live their lives in a radically different way.  As compelling as these conversion stories are, however, it is vitally important for us to recognize the other, more gradual ways that God can be manifest to us.  And while John gives us dramatic examples of conversion in his account of Jesus’ early ministry, he also gives us compelling instances where God’s purposes are revealed in a more subtle way.  There is, of course, the nameless disciple of John whom Jesus invites to “come and see.”  We do not read that this disciple felt compelled to change everything about himself; instead, Jesus invited him into a relationship, a relationship that wasn’t predicated on any particular result.  Even more powerful is the example of Philip and Nathanael.  After Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael’s caustic response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was something of a backwater, not terribly well regarded, especially by those from the more cosmopolitan cities around the Galilee, like Bethsaida.  Nathanael’s question has particular resonance for me, as my hometown was a place that was not terribly well regarded.  hartfordI have heard a version of “Can anything good come out of Hartford” more than a few times in my life.  My response to remarks like this tended to be defensive and sometimes angry.  I would ball my fists and list all of the luminaries who had called Hartford, CT home, from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn.  I would, in other words, shut down the conversation.  But notice that’s exactly what Philip does not do with Nathanael.  Instead of responding defensively, Philip responds with an invitation: “Come and see.”  Instead of shutting down the conversation and telling Nathanael to go find his own Messiah, Philip turns to him and says, “Let me show you what good can come out of Nazareth.  Let me show you what God is up to in this Jesus.  Let me show how your life can be different.”

It occurs to me that in many ways, this is the nature of our vocation as Christians.  We are called to be like Philip, and if you’ll permit me, we’re called to be like Vanna White.  We are called to show the world the good that has come out of Nazareth.  We are called to show the world what God is up to in this Jesus.  We are called to show the people of this world how their lives can be different.  This is a challenging time in the history of the Church.  In the face of scandal, abuse, denominational infighting, and whole host of other issues, fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians.  People look at the plethora of Christian denominations and wonder whether there is anything that they can agree on, if there is any point to them trying to have a conversation.  More and more, the Church is regarded as an irrelevant artifact of a patriarchal past, one that is destined gradually to disappear.  In short, people are asking, “Can anything good come out of the Church?”  Even though we might be inclined to respond defensively, the God we serve calls us to invitation.  Even though we might want to avoid challenging conversations, the God we worship calls us to say, “Let me show you.”  Let me show you the Medical Care Mission, a ministry of this church that has provided people with low incomes with health care for thirty years.  Let me show you Christians of many denominations serving breakfast to the working poor over at First Christian before the sun comes up every day of the week.  Let me show you people from a variety of backgrounds worshiping together with silence and song as they gather for ecumenical Taize services.  Let me show you a group of people committed to serving their community and seeking Christ in everyone they meet.  Let me show you love.  It is in the moments that we acknowledge and celebrate our love for one another, our love for our community, and God’s love for everyone in this broken world that we most vividly show the world what good the Church can do.  Ultimately, the Church does not exist for itself; it exists for the transformation of the world.  In that regard, we cannot reach out to the people of world with the intention of getting them to become Episcopalians or Presbyterians; we must reach out to the people of the world with the intention of showing them how much God loves them.  This week of prayer for Christian Unity that we celebrate today is an opportunity to do just that, an opportunity for us to embrace our Christian vocation, our call to be in relationship with the world and invite the world to come and see.