Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 17 2014

Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Tuesday will be an important day in the life of our parish, when the Archdeacon of Hampstead, Father Luke Miller, will come to us to conduct his visitation, something that happens once every three years in every parish. The Archdeacon is the senior church officer in this area, under the bishop, and the visitation is a legal check and inspection that enables him to ensure everything is as it should be, from where we keep the chalices to our health and safety policy.

This might seem like a boring bit of bureaucracy, but these practical things are essential to the day to day life of a parish. Among other things, Father Luke is going to ask us about our new mission action plan, which we launched in June, and what we are doing to implement the targets we’ve set ourselves as a parish.

The Bible also talks about visitations and mission action plans, but on a larger scale than a parish. God’s visitation of his people: the Old Testament prophets talk about times of visitation when God seemed to be testing and judging his people. And God’s mission action plan for Israel: the people called to be a light for the nations, so that all the peoples of the world might come to know the one true God. We heard part of that in the reading from Isaiah this morning. God is going to make a banquet for all peoples, he will swallow up death for ever and wipe away the tears from all faces. That’s good news for everyone, without exception. The wedding banquet is an image of the Kingdom of God, and everyone is invited.

One of the things Jesus is saying in his parable today is that God is visiting his people. His coming among them is a time of testing and judging. So, what have they done about their mission action plan? What had Israel done to make known God’s salvation to the nations?

And the answer was, quite a lot, at the time of Jesus. For centuries Jewish communities and synagogues had been spreading across the world, even as far as India and China, but mostly in the Mediterranean world. In the midst of the old religions of many gods and temples and sacrifices the synagogues made known the one God who is creator of all and offers salvation to all.

And many gentiles came to believe. Most were content to attend the synagogue, to listen to the scriptures, to try to act justly, and to pray to the God they had come to know in Judaism. Full conversion, which included circumcision and the dietary laws, was too difficult for most. These communities of gentile believers, attached to synagogues but not fully members, were known as “God fearers” or “devout persons”, and they are mentioned quite a lot in the New Testament.

These groups became the fertile seed ground for the gospel when it expanded beyond Judaism in the first century. The church of the Philippians, to whom Paul addressed his letter today, began with the conversion at Philippi of a devout gentile woman called Lydia, as related in the Acts of the Apostles.

But the Pharisees and Chief Priests in today’s gospel reading aren’t interested in this. The parable Jesus tells is getting at them, as ones who made light of God’s message and disregarded it. They don’t care that they are the custodians of the call from God to all the nations to enter his kingdom. They don’t want everyone and anyone coming in, they want to keep it pure and exclusive, their religion and their people on their terms.

Now it has to be said that not all Pharisees and priests were like this. In Matthew’s gospel they are used as a sort of dramatic caricature: they emphasise what Jesus is teaching by opposing him. Their interpretation of Judaism is narrow and exclusive; Jesus’ interpretation is the opposite.

Jesus teaches here that Israel’s mission action plan really means what it says: God is calling all people to enter his kingdom. Jew and Gentile, respectable and not so respectable, the poor, the marginalised, the excluded. Everyone is invited! But if you disregard the message and don’t want to sit down and feast with the sort of people God is inviting, you will be left outside – but by your own choice.

Now it has to be said that the behaviour of the king in this parable does seem very violent. He destroys the city of the people who refuse to come! Are we meant to understand that God is like this?

Well, this is a parable, and we can’t simply read it as an allegory. Parables are strange, they test and challenge our consciousness, our understanding. Parables read us; what we read into them tells us something about ourselves. What is easy to forget, but is certainly true, is that all earthly cities are destined to pass away. The only city that will endure for ever is the City of God, the gathering of all people into God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace.

And what of the man who doesn’t have a wedding robe, and gets thrown out. What does that mean? The custom at wedding banquets at the time of Jesus was for the host to provide wedding robes for those who didn’t have them. So if you are not wearing a wedding robe it’s because you have rejected the gift. Many have therefore interpreted the wedding robe as the grace of baptism, forgiveness and new birth in Christ, and that we should be careful not to lose that grace, which is God’s free gift to us.

But let’s remember where we are in the bigger story of Matthew’s gospel. We are in holy week, in Jerusalem. In a few days Jesus will be betrayed and arrested. He will be put on trial, and will be speechless, he will say nothing in answer to the accusations made against him. He will have no robe, because he will be stripped of his clothing. He will be bound hand and foot, and led out to the darkness outside the city gates. He will be taken to Golgotha, the place of execution, surely a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

So when we look more closely, that person who gets thrown out of the banquet looks rather like Jesus. Now, we know the end of the story, that Jesus, after he was betrayed and killed, was raised from the dead. We know that it’s the resurrection that takes away the veil over all nations and opens the way for all people into the feast of God’s kingdom.

That rather suggests that the feast of God’s kingdom begins with the outcast, the voiceless, and the powerless, rather than excluding them. It is on the edges and margins of society that God is at work, because that is where God is at work in Jesus.

So the parable takes us on a journey into a deeper consciousness, a fuller vision of the truth. Yes, it is about the feast of God’s kingdom and the need to be reborn through the grace of God, because the kingdom is the new creation which we enter through Christ’s resurrection.

But it is also about discovering where God is at work, on the margins, on the outside, with the outcast and the victim. Because of that, we know that the feast of God’s kingdom is good news for us and for everyone. Especially for those who might least think that they belong. And we, the bearers of that message, have no right to shut anyone out.

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