Thursday, 6 October 2011

16th Sunday after Trinity: Being Changed

Philippians 4:1-9
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

The story that Jesus tells in this parable is a fairly simple one, yet with a message that we really struggle to deal with today. You have heard me preach about my concerns on the doctrine of hell and about what judgement might really be about, and then we get a story like today’s which seems to indicate that there is finally a group that is in and others who are out.

But please don’t think that this is a simplistic tale. There is more to this parable than meets the eyes, and there is a better way of understanding it than we have done historically, so let’s go back and think about it from the position of someone listening to it for the first time.

First of all, remember the context. Jesus isn’t just talking to peasant farmers or fishermen trying to grow their businesses up in the rural Galilean area that most of his ministry has taken place in. By the time we get to this part in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. In the overall story cycle we’ve reached the last few days of Jesus’s earthly life and he’s now in the midst of Jerusalem.

It seems likely that his audience is going to be a far more mixed bag. There will be plenty of rural people who have travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, but remember also that Jerusalem was the capital city, and cities like that are where the rich and powerful people gravitate to, and where the wannabee rich and powerful will go in order to better realise their dreams.

It is to this mixed, and more cosmopolitan, audience that Jesus addresses this parable and I think that we should be cautious about how we imagine this taking place and the way in which Jesus told the story. Firstly we need to recognise that a parable is a story meant to get you thinking about a number of things; it’s not the same as an allegory.

If this was an allegory we could clearly say that ‘This character is meant to represent so and so, and this character is someone else’. Instead we are presented with a number of word pictures which in some cases bear on the ludicrous, leaving me with the impression that Jesus might have told this as a tall-story, the kind of thing that might have meant he had a wry smile on his face, that is until he reached the punch-line at the end.

So let’s, first of all, have a quick look through the parable at the way the story unfolds. It begins with a royal wedding and there is a suggestion that the king and his son refers to God the Father and Jesus the Son, but remember it is a parable, not an allegory; it’s not meant to be an exact match. So it’s a royal wedding and the upper social classes have been invited, and this immediately changes our perspective on the story.

We naturally assume that this parable is about Jews having been called to be God’s people but that they turned down the invitation, and so non-Jews like us get invited instead and God creates the church to replace Israel. But no, that’s not the way Jesus is telling it and that’s a much later and rather more dubious interpretation. Instead he is talking about the upper social classes having been invited to a royal wedding and coming up with excuses not to attend.

Remember it’s a parable, not an allegory. It’s not saying that God first of all invites the rich and powerful and only when they wouldn’t come did he invite the downtrodden. But what it is doing is pointing out how the rich and powerful often scorn the humility required to be in God’s presence and the readiness of the outsiders to accept the invitation. It also highlights the way God’s prophets have so often been mistreated or murdered by the rulers to whom they were sent.

It also has this ludicrous edge to it of how events get out of control, and those who took the wedding invites were killed by those who had been invited, leading to this ridiculous escalation in which the king burns their city to the ground, all because of a wedding invite. There is also an ironic edge to it, because in reality the social climbers would never in a million years turn down an invitation to a real royal wedding, but that they had ignored God’s invitation which was actually a far greater honour, but one which did not carry anything like as much public kudos.

As I say, I can imagine Jesus telling this like a tall story with a faint smile on his face as he draws his listeners in, reminding his listeners, many of whom were rich and powerful, that God calls the nobodies too, and they’re often the ones who respond. They’re the ones who recognise the honour in being called by God. I think this is probably an example of Jesus’s humour, with a sense of the ridiculous.

And then finally we get the sucker punch, that one of these guests, one of these nobodies, wasn’t wearing a wedding gown, and because of that he is thrown out into the outer darkness, a picture of hell, and we’re left floundering wondering what on earth that last part meant. I probably ought to mention that the Greek for, ‘...Many are called...’ can also be rendered as, ‘...All are called...’

Well here’s my ideas. Have you ever received a party invite that says, ‘Come as you are’? The idea is that whatever you’re wearing when you open the invite is what you wear when you go to the party. God’s invitations into the kingdom of heaven are rather like that, but he adds another line to them:
‘Come as you are, but then let me dress you.’

The wedding gown would have been a gift from the King to those who attended the banquet and the intention of Jesus was to suggest to people that everyone is invited to come to join God’s Kingdom, but we would have to allow God to change us because we’re not suited for heaven in the people that we are now.

‘Come as you are, but let me dress you’, could just as easily be God saying, ‘Come as you are but let me change you.’ And that’s the part where our hackles begin to rise because we’re not all that sure we want to be changed, or need to be changed. God is saying, ‘There are standards of behaviour, ways of being human, and you need to keep them.’

That is not saying that we can’t be forgiven when we slip up and get it wrong, but the ejection of the guest who refused to wear a wedding garment makes it clear to us that unless we are willing for God to change us, we cannot be a part of the kingdom of heaven. It’s quite a harsh message really, and not at all in keeping with our sensibilities of how God welcomes everyone in.

Yes, he does welcome everyone. His arms are spread far wider than our petty doctrines allow us to perceive, but he also makes it clear that part of the deal is that we allow ourselves to be changed, to become more like Jesus. Or to put it another way, God loves you exactly as you are, but he loves you so much that he doesn’t want to leave you that way.

We have to be prepared to change, to be changed, but I think we make excuses for ourselves so that we don’t have to put in the effort. It’s much easier to point the finger at someone else’s behaviour than to think about our own, because if we can say to ourselves, ‘I’m not as bad as that’, then we can kid ourselves that we’re ok and don’t need to put in the effort to change.

For example, if a child molester came and joined our congregation we would expect them to change or we would throw them out into the outer darkness. But in a sense that’s nice and easy - that’s a sin that everyone can loathe and that we can make ourselves feel better about. But what about a liar? Or a gossip? What about someone who spreads rumours about someone else or someone who cheats on their taxes?

What about someone whose parents need them to be there more often? What about someone who has never taken the trouble to get to know their neighbours so that they can help them when they need it? What about the person who thinks that their way is always the right way and isn’t humble enough to listen to another’s ideas? But about someone who doesn’t give very much of their income away? What about someone who makes excuses not to give their time to help?

It’s nice and easy to hate the big sins and demonise the sinners, but the truth is that every single one of us has no right to be a part of the kingdom of heaven. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to the obvious loathsome sinners and saying, ‘Well I’m better than them’. Instead we should be comparing ourselves to the perfection of Jesus and realising, in humility, how far short of God’s standards we actually fall.

And God says, ‘I love you and I forgive you. Come as you are. Come - but let me dress you, let me change you.’

So how can we be changed by God? There are many ways, and simply being an active and giving part of the Christian community is helpful, but we can also make wise decisions about training our minds and attempting to learn some discipline. We know when we’re doing something wrong, and I think we also know when we’re allowing our minds to go to places they shouldn’t.

St. Paul gives us wise counsel in his letter to the Philippians when he says this:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

I’m not telling you to become fluffy, out-of-touch, culturally unaware Christians, but I am suggesting that we should learn to guide our imaginations wisely. We are influenced by our surroundings, so we need to make an effort to give God space to change us by making wise decisions about what we fill our time and our heads with, whilst learning to give God thanks for his gifts to us. Gratitude is a way into humility.

We have to be very careful here that we don’t end up in a self-condemnatory, ‘I’ll never be good enough’ state of misery. Actually we have to face the truth that, yes, we can’t make ourselves good enough, but we can make space for God to begin to change us, to leave behind some of the actions of our past.

And remember, the Lord says, ‘I love you, just as you are, but I love you too much to let you stay that way. Let me dress you. Let me change you.’

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